Review of Chopra’s review of Hanson & Simler

Out of intellectual curiosity, we have decided to read and review Paras Chopra’s excellent review of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s new book Elephant in the Brain (pictured below the fold). Mr Chopra’s comprehensive review consists of a series of 65 tweets, with each tweet summarizing a big idea from Hanson and Simler’s book. Below, then, is Mr Chopra’s original thread of tweets (1-65), followed by our comment, question, or observation (in italics):

1/ Reading Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s new book ‘Elephant in the brain’. Here are my notes on big ideas from the book.

I wish more book reviews were like this.

EVOLUTION OF HUMAN BRAINS

2/ Human intelligence evolved as a result of an arms race of getting ahead in social situations where two contrasting incentives always existed: to co-operate or to compete.

Question re: the “compete” modality: Isn’t competing within “the rules of the game” (depending of course on the game one is playing) more like cooperation instead of a distinct category?

In other words, I want to distinguish those forms of competition that involve “cheating” (breaking the rules) or defection and those forms of competition that occur within the rules.

3/ Unlike chimps where hierarchy is strictly from alpha male to least powerful individuals, language allowed humans to form coalitions and keep most aggressive individuals in check. These coalitions are where laws and norms come from

Next question: do we really need language to have norms?

4/ Since norms cannot be exactly specified, human brains evolved to find subtle ways to work around them (lying) and to detect others working their ways around them (detecting lying)

ok, but how many arms races are going on? Is cheating and cheater-detection a separate arms race or part of the overall arms race between cooperation and competition?

5/ Since humans have to co-operate but others suspect that our intentions are not true, we evolved honest signals such as body language, shame, guilt, etc.

Can’t those so-called honest signals be faked, leading to yet another arms race between good fakers and good faker detectors?

6/ Since other humans can detect our dishonest intentions, lying to others is difficult but we still have to find ways to take opportunities to exploit social situations to get ahead – to get sex, status, power.

Clarification: the word “exploit” need not have a negative connotation

7/ Our brains evolved to lie to themselves in order to give honest signals in social situations. That is why in order to blend in a social society, it’s not just enough to lie that you believe in god, you have to actually believe that (taking help from all sorts of cognitive biases)

This is my favorite part (so far): self-deception! If true, there is an INTERNAL ARMS RACE inside each us …

8/ Since we act and verbalize conscious thoughts in social situations, our brains give censored version of reality to consciousness that mostly contains info that makes us feel good about ourselves (such that others mistake us for actually being that good)

key question re: “our brains give us censored [I would say “edited”] versions of reality” — How do “our brains” do this? Don’t we have some level of agency in this censoring/editing process?

9/ This last idea is radical. This means all our conscious thoughts (and ideas about ourselves) are hopelessly twisted and disjoint from reality

ok, but is this new? Didn’t we already know this? (Reality and Perception Are Rarely the Same.) What am I missing here?

10/ A wrong but confident person can get ahead in social conditions while right but self doubting person makes no progress

This can’t be right. Doesn’t progress ultimately depend more on the quality of one’s decisions (i.e. one’s bets) and less on one’s mental motivation?

11/ This also explains why you find strong opinions on social media. Nobody retweets uncertain, heavily caveated opinions.

Alternative hypothesis: maybe there are more fools on social media than there are savants

12/ Our conscious selves are less CEO more like PR teams. The ‘conscious self’ doesn’t decide as much as it defends what has been decided. It’s amazing how even we don’t have privileged info on what’s going on in our brains

This sounds very Humean to me. (Don’t get me wrong. David Hume is one of my intellectual heroes!) I’m just saying none of this is new.

13/ Since PR team has to spin everything into a positive light, while talking about ourselves we always cherry pick (unconsciously) our positive, noble traits while conveniently leave our selfish reasons.

So what? (so long as everyone is “self-cherry-picking” to create their own best version of themselves)

BODY LANGUAGE, LAUGHTER, AND SPEAKING

14/ Body language evolved to send honest signals – it’s hard to fake because body signals are functionally related to messages they signals. Comfort signaled by being open is hard to fake because you invite attack from potential enemies (so you only signal comfort when you mean it)

I thought the concept of “power poses” was bullshit?

15/ Social status: dominance is status we get from being able to intimidate. Prestige is status we get when others want to mimic us / be around us

How much do these categories (i.e. dominance and prestige) overlap?

16/ Body language doesn’t register in our conscious because when asked to explain our body language – we have plausible deniability. We can say we were merely being friendly when we were flirting. Things hidden from our consciousness could be a feature not a bug.

This sounds more like a form of “Strategic Body Language” as opposed to “Sincere Body Language.” (So I would expect to see an arms race in the domain of body language too.)

17/ Laughter is a signal to others that situation isn’t serious and that we’re just playing. It’s a signal that our actions or threats shouldn’t be perceived as serious (even through they might seem aggressive)

Doesn’t laughter serve more than one purpose? What is laughter is interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as a form of mockery?

18/ We play to practice and explore norms of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in social environment capable of in a safe environment

Two points: (1) We also play to perfect our cheating skills as well as our cheater-detection skills! (2) Isn’t everything in human affairs ultimately a game of one form or another

19/ Laughter allows us to explore boundaries of what cannot be said openly because if confronted we can always deny later that we were serious about it

So, like body language, there is an arms race between “Strategic Laughter” and “Sincere Laughter”?

20/ Speaking has costs associated: sharing of information you could have used personally and the cost of acquiring info. On the surface, it would seem we should listen a lot more (to acquire info for free) than speak. But that’s not what happens

This is a fascinating puzzle. Could speaking be a form of “gift-giving”?

21/ reason is that by speaking, we are essentially showing off by giving important info and hence raising social status (to win potential allies for our causes)

But what about the puzzle referred to in tweet #20 above? After all, speaking is costly (information disclosure) and risky (we might create enemies instead of garnering allies).

22/ we feel attracted to confident individuals because we take their confidence for a signal towards a hidden strength. Confident people walk fast and hence take risk of attracting competition/attack, hence confident is taken as honest signal of strength

But how can this be true in a world full of good bullshitter detectors! Remember the many arms races between cheating and cheater detection …

NEWS & ACADEMIA

23/ Function of news isn’t to know the truth (if it was people would put effort to weed out fake news). Function of news is to know things you can talk about to others that they may be interested in (hence elevating your status)

No, the function of news is just entertainment (like sports, stories, movies, etc.), and the value of these sources depends on who we want to talk to …

24/ Academics isn’t driven by finding the truth. It’s driven by elevating the prestige by attending prestigious institutes, studying under prestigious professors, going to prestigious conferences and speaking there. This is why research in non-hot areas remains hidden for so long.

This can’t be right. What if academic prestige were a function of one’s ability to find truth?

In any case, truth is hard to find, so that’s why “non-hot areas” are hidden for so long …

25/ Academic sponsors also want to associate themselves with prestigious issues and researchers, and not necessarily optimise for most impact on humanity per dollar

So what if academic funding is no different than business finance? That might be a good thing …

WORK & HAPPINESS

26/ Even though technology rises productivity, we still work as hard as our grandfathers because there a limited number of sex and status going around. This causes us to competitively work harder than our neighbours, and no amount of automation will reduce our working hours

So the bottom line is that the pursuit of sex and status are zero sum games?

27/ When people buy expensive environmentally friendly products, they are signalling that they are willing to forgo luxury/money for being a good person

File this under “true but trivial”

28/ If we are happy, we want to share it with others because we want to signal: associating with us can bring happiness to us (hence elevating our status)

I need some clarification: Fake happiness or sincere happiness? Is there a “happiness arms race” too?

ADVERTISING

29/ The value people derive from products and services is not just their own consumption value but also signalling value: what will others who know I’m consuming this think about me. Does this elevate my status amongst the tribe we want to belong?

True, but we already knew all this!

30/ Advertising either targets us individually (information: Colgate cleans teeth) or our perception of how other people think. The latter – lifestyle advertising – is used by lots of brands.

Yawn …

31/ Like when we see an ad of BMW that says driving pleasure, we may believe that other people know BMW’s drivers are having fun. So if you want to be seen as having fun, you prefer BMW.

But all car ads do this. Isn’t advertising itself the product of an arms race between competing sellers? (that is, we would see less ads if sellers could make a credible commitment with each other not to waste money on ads)

32/ This is why advertising slots on Super Bowl is so expensive – companies are not just paying for reaching 50m people not that each one of them knows that 50m people have seen the same ad

This is a cool point. Reminds me of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keynesian_beauty_contest …

ART

33/ Sports and Art are used to signals things: athletics and dance to show genetic fitness, visual arts to show affordance of wasting time and energy to attract mates, masks be so visible in the wild to show that you can defend yourself well when attacked

So do artists and athletes have more sex and higher status than non-artists do? That’s what I thought … I nominate Hanson & Simler for “Best Just So Story”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just-so_story …

Alternative theory: Even if the production of art were motivated by sex and status, art must have some intrinsic value (e.g. truth and beauty) to non-artists. An artist’s status might be a function of art’s deeper value …

Also, what about beauty?

34/ ‘Showing off’ is one of the important motives for making art. When people marvel at a famous abstract art (say Mondrian) in a gallery, they aren’t appreciating straight lines but the fact that the artist managed to convince everyone that these straight lines are worth putting in a gallery and charging money for

So far, there is no mention of the key role that “originality” and “novelty” play in the art world. Great artists (the ones we appreciate the most) were usually the most original and experimental ones.

So the production of great art involves some level of risk!

35/ Our appreciation for art depends more on what it says about the artist and less about inherent ‘look and feel’ of art. When we look at Mona Lisa, we appreciate Leonardo for creating world’s most famous paining and less the smiling lady

This is true up to a point. As with literature, the work of art itself (whether it be a novel or a painting or a musical composition) must express some truth or beauty to us …

The role of the creator of the work of art is thus important but not the most important thing when we evaluate or enjoy art.

36/ Similarly, when we stand in queue for hours to see the original Mona Lisa at the Louvre, we do it so we can tell people we saw the original one. We we really wanted to see Mona Lisa for individual pleasure, buying a perfect replica for $10 usd would have done the job

Maybe people go see the Mona Lisa because other people go see the Mona Lisa!

In other words, the Mona Lisa queue is more a function of #HerdingBehaviorhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/2962287 

37/ We enjoy arts not in spite of constraints – such as rhyming in poems – but because of them (since constraints show artists’ abilities/fitness)

Duh!

This is the same reason people waste time and money to watch baseball and other sports: it’s hard to hit a home run or steal a base. If it were easy, art and sports would not be an honest signal of artistic genius or athletic prowess

38/ our aesthetic taste changes in accordance to availability of stuff in our environment: lobsters were so abundant in 1800s that they were considered cheap and reviled food (like rat meat), today they are scarcer and hence became luxury food item.

39/ Similarly, in pre-industrialised world realism was a valued aesthetic but post-industrialised world, hand-crafted and ‘raw’ became more expensive. (Also by paying dearly for ‘handcrafted’ or ‘luxury’s we are signaling that we have so much money that can afford to waste it)

Is Robin Hanson falling into the WEIRD trap?

Something is missing here … What about the differences between, say, the Islamic aesthetic (geometrical shapes) versus the Western European aesthetic?

40/ Ostentatious behaviours – like wearing expensive items, drinking expensive wine – signal abundance (of money and time). People without abundance have no choice but to be functional – so efficiency signals non-abundance.

But what is the direction of causation here? Is ostentation a function of status, or is it the other way around?

CHARITY

41/ We donate not to make a change but to be happy from the act of donation. That’s why we don’t care how efficient our donation is or what results came out of it – our motives are fulfilled as soon as we’re done writing the cheque or handing our spare change

Who is the buyer and who is the seller in the charity donation market?

Again, “showing off” is only a partial explanation of charity; “helping others” (altruism) has to be part of the story too; otherwise, rich people would just buy more yachts, mansions, planes, etc. and donate 0 to charity

42/ charities know our hidden motives for donation – to be seen as generous, that’s why they name buildings after donor names or give plaques. This is why Anonymous donations are rare – only 1% of all donations

“hidden motives” — better to say “unstated motives” (everyone already knows that charity is just as much about the status of the giver as it is about helping the poor or finding a cure for cancer or whatever)

43/ Charities are also a manifestation of abundance-display behaviour. We essentially want to show that we have so many resources that we are willing to give some of them away

Again, just as there are different strategies for increasing one’s status, there could be multiple reasons why people donate to charity

Like tax deductions

EDUCATION

44/ Education in schools and colleges is less about learning – how much you retain what you learned anyway? And most employers have to also train from scratch. Rather a degree is a signal to Employers that the person can work hard and conform to expectations.

My “True but Trivial” File is getting really full now

46/ What an ‘A’ grade signifies isn’t necessarily general mastery in that subject but the capacity of a person to work hard and integrate concepts into getting an ‘A’ grade

We already knew this!

47/ Schools don’t necessarily impart qualities as much as they give credible way for students to advertise the qualities they already have

Why can’t we say that schools serve both functions (signalling and genuine learning)?

Formal education is not either/or. A diploma can signal a student’s underlying qualities, AND it can also signal some transmission of knowledge as well! The actual mix will depend on many factors.

48/ Schools also serve higher order systems purpose: a) propaganda towards nationalism (remember pledges when you were in school that you have no idea why were you doing); b) Domestication (sitting through long boring hours and asking for permission that’s needed in workplace)

So learning how to read and write is just an added bonus of schooling!

49/ Unschooled citizens are hard to control in society so schooling teaches them to be obedient to authority. That has positives (prevents anarchy and keeps society running) and negatives (kills the soul and free spirit

What about recess?

In other words, some elements of schooling can actually nourish the soul and cultivate one’s free spirits.

MEDICINE

50/ Doctors and caretakers are incentivised to overmedicate because if they prescribe ‘do nothing’ and rest, we and society will think they don’t care (while in reality ‘do nothing’ could indeed be right advice)

True, but not always … If it were, my toddler’s pediatrician has left a lot of money on the table!

To be more accurate: some non-trivial fraction of doctoring involves overmedication.

As an aside, a more interesting question is how much doctoring (if any) involves “under-medication”?

51/ To avoid law suits negligence and for profits, most doctors and hospitals will prescribe more medicines and tests than needed

My “true but trivial” file is bulging now

52/ Most medical interventions (even by our near ones) is to show they care rather than to actually help us heal.

Or as Ernest Hemingway once said: “never confuse movement with action”

53/ We want to be seen as taking and getting care from well reputable places (and not necessarily best performing ones): When government published risk-adjusted hospital death rates, hospitals with high death rate saw only 0.8% reduction in admission while a single high profile mishandling at a hospital resulted in 9% reduction.

Wow, that much! Considering that no one read the reports, I’m so surprised …

RELIGION

54/ Our beliefs don’t always (usually?) determine our actions. Rather they are symptoms of underlying incentives that are frequently social (acceptance, dominance, prestige, loyalty)

In other words, there is probably some kind of feedback mechanism between beliefs and the effects of our actions.

And that is precisely how it should be (at least if you are a good Bayesian).

55/ For example, religions are less about beliefs and more about shared beliefs that bind a community and give a security and belonging to participants. If it was merely about beliefs, we shouldn’t have fanatic sport fans, Apple fans or even zeal that was seen in atheistic Nazi/Communist movements

So church attendance is more like the queue for the Mona Lisa or like superbowl ads (cf. Tweet #32 in this excellent thread)!

Let me now restate my original question to this project …: SO WHAT?

56/ Rituals are proof of work (through investment of time and money) to get social benefits of belonging in a community. These indicate to other members that I’m a co-operator, not an exploiter

TRUE BUT TRIVIAL?

57/ God is a placeholder for society or community. By doing things for god, members are really doing things for the community

Guys, we’re are going to need a working definition of “Community,” since so many things done in God’s name are very terrible!

58/ The reason sacrifice (wasting food at altars, celibacy, fasting, literal sacrifice) is important because they’re honest signals that sacrificing individuals are vested in the group. Sacrifice is their skin in the game

But can’t those things be faked as well?

59/ Sermons make a code of conduct public, and by listening to them people get confidence that other people they see will also behave similarly to them

But won’t some (most?) members of the congregation try to evade whatever rules are affirmed in the sermon?

In other words, we should expect to see an arms race between cheaters and cheater detectors in any given flock or congregation. Are sermons a way of extolling and empowering cheater detectors to do their work?

60/ Visible symbols like turbans, five times a day praying, clothes serve as a identifiers of who’s in my community (and shares my values) and who’s outside of it

I’m going to start using TBT as shorthand for TRUE BUT TRIVIAL

61/ Belief in super natural god who punishes bad deeds and knows our innermost thoughts is helpful to bind a community together as when they believe these things, they’ll actually co-operate more and be nice to each other

But how effective is this trick? I would like to know whether the level of cheating, promise-breaking, crime, divorce, drug use, etc. is the same in societies that believe in one true God as in pagan societies.

VOTING/POLITICS

62/ Why do we take effort to vote when our odds of tilting election results in our favour is one in many million? And when we vote, why do we care so less about truth or track record of candidates? We go by personality or charisma.

Isn’t this the same way we decide who to be friends with or what athletes to admire?

63/ This is because we vote not to take action but to express loyalty to one group. All pre election discussion is about which group do you belong to (that’s why the actual matters less but what matters is differentiating positions). By signaling loyalty or disloyalty to local communities or friend circles using political spectrum, we are getting social value

So the key to a good democracy is, how free are people to change their group loyalties?

This point raises two deeper research questions: (1) how do group loyalties get started?, and (2) when and why do people change their group?

CONCLUSION

64/ The book closes with this beautiful quote: ‘Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise’. @robinhanson offers advice: ‘what offers overwhelmingly true or right is often suspiciously self serving’. Watch out for that

I’m going to be brutally honest here. I don’t see what this collection of Just So Stories adds to the literature. Robert Trivers’ book on Deceit and Self-Deception is still the gold standard here: https://www.amazon.com/Deceit-Self-Deception-Fooling-Yourself-Better/dp/0713998261 …

65/ Why am I writing all this? To signal how smart I am and how I care about other people getting smarter. In short, the elephant in my brain is ‘I tweet cool things not out of kindness but because I want more followers’ of course I won’t say that aloud

The irony here is that there is an optimal level of honesty.

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