Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Team Thinking and the Zone of Bad Information

Anarchists talk as if there is something fundamentally worthwhile in human life. They employ terms like 'virtue', 'goodness', 'potential' and so on. Anarchism is based on the premise that if it weren't for pesky and interfering governments, human life would be substantially better, if not indeed unrecognisably so, from the current picture. It's based on a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature that has very little evidential support.
-Karl, in a comment on his post

This insight extends to almost every belief structure there is, because almost every belief structure is fundamentally (and shamefully) optimistic. Feminists and men's rights people seem to think life would be grand if it weren't for pesky, interfering patriarchy/gynocracy. [Group A] thinks life would be grand if it weren't for pesky, interfering [Group B] fucking up the program, and vice versa.

I think of this as "team thinking" - the idea that (a) we are on teams (what Vonnegut calls granfalloons), and that (b) our team should win against the other teams, which (c) totally exist, and (d) then life would be great.

This "team thinking" is a huge part of the reason that we get bad information and cannot think clearly. This is because of the practice of civility, which is a form of bullshit.

Civility means that we avoid saying things that cause our conversation partners to experience negative affect. Unbiased information about oneself is particularly difficult to get, because negative information about oneself is likely to cause one to feel bad, and is hence "impolite" to discuss. Team thinking extends this zone of bad information to information about all kinds of spurious groups we happen to belong to, not just the individual - gender teams, race teams, political teams, geographic location teams, socioeconomic teams, religious teams.

In-groups (the existence of, and bias toward, which are on the list of human universals) represent an important part of self-deception, in that it allows us to imagine that others deserve suffering.


  1. I don't need to be convinced that in-group loyalties tend to reinforce optimistic biases, and I agree that adversarial posturing often promotes bad information and enmity. I am puzzled, however, by your indictment of "civility" in this context. "Civil" discourse is usually advised when communicating with members of an out-group, the presumption being that, given some measure of good faith, a respectful disposition can serve to advance common understanding and clarity (synthesis is chimeric). Describing civility as a form of bullshit seems to overlook this dynamic, which should never preclude engagement with "impolite" points of contention.

    If you are stumping for the sort of radical honesty that may leave others feeling slighted and embarrassed, it is difficult to see how this advances truth-seeking in any meaningful way -- except occasionally in the context of stand up comedy. Of course, we can't all be Sarah Silverman or Louis C.K.

  2. I'd say that the belief that Anarchism is based on an overoptimistic view of humans is not getting the point. The point is that humans are moved by _incentive structures_. This is proven time and time again by history and experiment. If you give people positive incentives, they will respond positively. If you give people negative incentives, they will respond negatively.

    Just because we live in a society where incentives are almost uniformly negatively structured doesn't mean that you have the right to claim that humans are uniformly rotten. That's not logical.

  3. Really, Francois! WHAT would be a positive incentive? Candies?

  4. Chip - in characterizing civility as a force contrary to truth-seeking (a socio-cognitive bias?), I do not mean to advocate any particular course of action toward it. Hostility is bullshit to at least the same degree as civility. Hurting people's feelings really does interfere with communication - instrumental communication goals (getting your point across, getting what you want) as well as self-presentation and relationship building goals. Radical honesty is a quixotic project for a group, a cruel project for an individual.

    By characterizing civility as bullshit, I mean to keep in focus that while it may prevent suffering and even at times advance communication, it is a force unconcerned with truth and often motivated to mask it.

    Francois - I agree that humans seem to follow incentive structures, albeit sometimes in strange patterns. But we are not just blind incentive-following machines - we are aware of incentives and who is providing them, and we are oriented to analyze the behavior of relevant others, especially those providing incentives to us.

    I don't think humans are uniformly rotten at all; quite the opposite. All my closest friends are humans. However, there are certain things inherent in our nature that ensure unacceptable levels of suffering, even with the best imaginable incentive structure.

  5. "Really, Francois! WHAT would be a positive incentive? Candies? "

    Egalitarian systems where people are incentivised to work together.

    Why do you act as if this is bizarre? We have them in real life. A friendship is a positive incentive system. So are most loving relationships. This is not to say that they never go wrong, but the incentive system is positive.

    There's been plenty of societies and organizations built on positive incentive systems. You just aren't interested enough to read about them. Not my problem.

  6. "However, there are certain things inherent in our nature that ensure unacceptable levels of suffering, even with the best imaginable incentive structure."

    Yes, that is probably so, but doesn't really counter my point. I will check the entry you linked to whenever I am able. I have to go right now.

  7. Your entry is fine as it is, but you're only talking about one little part of the picture. The book I recommended you on the comments will fill you in on the larger picture.

  8. I'm not sure where to start, but here are a few random thoughts in no particular order:

    I don't think feminism and anarchism are very good examples of the phenomenon you are describing. Both these terms refer to a collection of movements with little to no cohesion between them. At the same time, I think it's usually the case that smaller movements under the large umbrella term, e.g., sex-positive feminism, are based on very real premises which you yourself identify in your writings fairly often, so is it really accurate to call such movements granfalloons (but then it's been a while since I've read The Cat's Cradle, so maybe I'm missing the point here)?

    The existence of gynocracy strikes me as highly dubious in any realm outside of some limited power women in a few Western countries have over their sexual partners' reproductive freedom, so I'm in agreement with you there. But it also seems pretty obvious to me that both the patriarchy and the government (and its supporters) do totally exist. And while I'm not sure what kind of results getting rid of the government would yield, eliminating the patriarchy or at least making the most egregious forms of sexism unpopular would make things better, ceteris paribus.

    Finally, it seems you are suggesting that the belief that life could be great if a few minor kinks were ironed out is somehow fundamental to feminism or anarchism. I see no reason to believe this. The mere fact that most feminists/anarchists/whatever are also unrealistically optimistic doesn't mean that unrealistic optimism or any kind of optimism, for that matter, is fundamental to feminism/anarchism/whatever. By that reasoning, it's also fundamental to being human, but I'm pretty sure we're all humans here, despite our less than optimistic outlook.

  9. Like many people, I have preferences over social policies and social norms. I try to adjust my preferences in line with available evidence, but I tend to think that no matter how well I do, if my preferred policies are adopted, there will be widespread misery.

    Although I also think that if policies or norms other than my preferred ones are adopted, things will be even worse than if mine were adopted.

    Am I on a team?

  10. James, as long as it's anti-hierarchies, you're on the right team :)

  11. Thanks for the referencing, Sister Y. For anyone who might be interested, the debate re.Anarchism rolls on over on the comments section of the post cited. All observations welcome!

  12. CM, sorry to respond late to this.

    I agree that there is wide variation within the movements I've identified. It's probably completely accurate to say that I'm a sex-positive feminist - that is, that I think sex is good and valuable, and that gender is a morally irrelevant criterion upon which to base distribution of rights or resources. You are probably right that the examples I chose are poor examples - I chose them partly because I wanted to question one of my own groups, rather than perhaps better exemplary groups like Wobblies ("workers" v. "bosses") or Young Republicans.

    The issue is that we naturally tend to confuse the question of the veracity/quality of values and facts with the feelings we have for the holders of those values or proponents of those facts. We love stories, and the story of a struggle (particularly one in which we are on the side of right) is a particularly appealing one. So we mix up communication and evaluation of values and facts with signaling in-group loyalty. We identify out-groups to signal our disapproval of ("breeders").

    It's not news that this happens - not a particularly original thought. What I want to push is the degree to which this kind of "us v. them" thinking pushes the idea that there must be some kind of solution - a victory, a utopia, a glorious end for the struggle. Team thinking leads to a particular kind of story thinking, neglecting the ever-important "null hypothesis" - that the problems we identify have no realistic solution.

    The mere fact that most feminists/anarchists/whatever are also unrealistically optimistic doesn't mean that unrealistic optimism or any kind of optimism, for that matter, is fundamental to feminism/anarchism/whatever. By that reasoning, it's also fundamental to being human, but I'm pretty sure we're all humans here, despite our less than optimistic outlook.

    Good point.

  13. Oh - and "team thinking" or "struggle thinking" also tends to help us ignore the all-important fact of the humanity of our "opponents," that they are fellow experiencers whose welfare by all rights we should be concerned with.

    This helped me realize something important: religions are primarily groups defined by the social interdependence of their members, rather than by beliefs that are commonly held by group members. People don't form or join religions based on beliefs, but rather for primarily social reasons. Belonging to a particular church is not nearly as good a predictor as you'd think of individual beliefs. The primacy of the group bonding aspect explains why religious people are happier.

  14. Sister Y-

    no problem. I'm sorry I'm late responding to your response, but my Internet has been so patchy lately, so I mostly have just been reading stuff instead of posting.

    This is all fascinating, especially since lately there has been a huge increase of antinatalist activity online, so ingroup-outgroup dynamics are a particularly pertinent issue right now.

    Perhaps directed truth-seeking is impossible. One would probably have to get on some kind of a "team" to facilitate truth-seeking (through the exchange of ideas, information-sharing, etc.), but the very act of becoming part of a team would impede truth-seeking through the mechanisms you describe. For instance, how much of what goes one in academia has anything to do with truth-seeking, despite the fact that it's supposed to be the whole point? In fact, the more outward dedication to truth-seeking a group demonstrates, the higher the incentive to bullshit (see the recent Marc Hauser fiasco) because those who discover the newest, edgiest truth get all kinds of team player rewards. Then there are also people whose explicit idea of bad information is information that causes negative affect, regardless of its veracity. It's not so clear to me that those people are wrong. Maybe the only way we can discover truth is by accident, and valuing truth isn't actually correlated with having true beliefs. Christians and Robin Hanson are good counterexamples, I think.


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