Tag Archives: psychology

A scene I once saw

(inaccurately recounted)

Ms. Knox: When any of you feels ready, you can move in to the center of the circle, hold the stone, and tell us all about your feelings about what we are doing. Listen to the trees moving, encouraging you.

Sarah: I feel really proud. Young people are so passionate about the environment. Everyone will have to believe in us when they see how much we care.

Amanda: Excited! I feel like we are going to be part of a really positive change, across the world. It’s so great to be here now, when this is happening.

Marie: I’m just really glad to be here with so many likeminded people. When nobody around you sees what’s possible, it can be really disillusioning, but here I feel like everyone cares so much.

Linda: I feel really inspired by what the others are saying!

Becky: I’m so hopeful when I see all this engagement. I believe we can all stay passionate and keep the movement going until we are old, and inspire the new youth!

Odette: Irritated! I have so many things I would enjoy doing more than saving the environment, both this weekend and for the rest of my life. Preventing ecological catastrophe is very important, but I’d obviously much much prefer that someone else had done it already, or that it never needed doing. It’s extremely disappointing that after this many generations nobody’s got around to the most obvious solutions like taxing the big externalities. These things are not even interesting to think about. In a perfect world it would be nice to play video games most of the time, but I’m at least as frustrated that I won’t even get to work on the interesting altruistic endeavors.


Why is this so rare?

Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

Value realism

People have different ideas about how valuable things are. Before I was about fifteen the meaning of this was ambiguous. I think I assumed that a tree for instance has some inherent value, and that when one person wants to cut it down and another wants to protect it, they both have messy estimates of what it’s true value is. At least one of them had to be wrong. This was understandable because value was vague or hard to get at or something.

In my year 11 Environmental Science class it finally clicked that there wasn’t anything more to value than those ‘estimates’.  That a tree has some value to an environmentalist, and a different value to a clearfelling proponent. That it doesn’t have a real objective value somewhere inside it. Not even a vague or hard to know value that is estimated by different people’s ‘opinions’. That there is just nothing there. That even if there is something there, there is no way for me to know about it, so the values I deal with every day can’t be that sort. Value had to be a two place function. 

I was somewhat embarrassed to have ever assumed otherwise, and didn’t really think about it again until recently.  It occurred to me recently that a long list of strange things I notice people believing can be explained by the assumption that they disagree with me on whether things have objective values. So I hypothesize that many people believe that value is a one place function which takes a thing as its argument, not a two place function of an agent and a thing.

Here’s my list of strange things. For each I give two explanations: why it is false, and why it is true if you believe in objective values. Note that these are generally beliefs that cause substantial harm:

When two people trade, one of them is almost certainly losing:

Why it’s false: In most cases where two people are willing to trade, this is because the values they assign to the items in question are such that both will gain by having the other person’s item instead of their own.

Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value shared somehow between the people’s posessions. Changing the distribution is very likely to harm one party or the other. It follows that people who engage in trade are suspicious, since trades must be mostly characterized by one party exploiting or fooling another.

Trade can be exploitative:

Why it’s false: Assuming exploitation is bad for he who is exploited, if a person chooses to trade, we can assume he is either not exploited or is deceived. Free choice is a filter: it causes people who would benefit from an activity to do it while people who wouldn’t do not.

Why it’s believed: If a person is desperate he might sell his labor for instance at a price below its true value. Since he is forced by circumstance to trade something more valuable for something less valuable, he is effectively robbed.

Prostitution etc should be prevented, because most people wouldn’t want to do it freely, so it must be pushed on those who do it:

Why it’s false: Again, free choice is a filter.

Why it’s believed: If most people wouldn’t be prostitutes, it follows that it is probably quite bad. If a small number of people do want to be prostitutes, they are probably wrong. The alternative is that they are correct, and the rest of society is wrong. It is less likely that a small number of people is correct than a large number. Since these people are wrong, and their being wrong will harm them (most people would really hate to be prostitutes), it is good to prevent them acting on either their false value estimates, or coercion.

If being forced to do X is dreadful, X shouldn’t be allowed:

Why it’s false: Again, choice is a filter. For an arbitrary person doing X, it might terrible, but it is still often good for people who want it. Plus, being forced to do a thing often decreases its value.

Why it’s believed: Very similar to above. The value of X remains the same, regardless of who is thinking about it, whether they are forced to do it. That a person would choose to do a thing others are horrified to have pressed on them, that just indicates that the person is mentally dysfunctional in some way.

Being rich indicates that you are evil:

Why it’s false: Since in every trade, both parties are benefited, being rich indicates that you have contributed to others receiving a large amount of value.

Why it’s believed: Since in every trade, someone wins and someone loses, anyone who has won at trading so many times is evidently an untrustworthy and manipulative character.

Poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich:

Why it’s false: That the rich countries don’t altruistically send a lot of aid into the poor countries is reason perhaps, though it’s not clear that this would help in the long run. Beyond that there’s no obvious connection.

Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value to be had in the world. The poor can’t become richer without the rich giving up some value.

The primary result of promotion of products is that people buy things they don’t really want:

Why it’s false: The value of products depends on how people feel about them, so it is possible to create value by changing how people feel about them.

Why it’s believed: Products have a fixed value. Changing your perception of this in the direction of you buying more of them is cheatful sophistry.



Is my hypothesis right? Do you think of value as a one or two place function? (Or more?) Which of the above beliefs do you hold? Are there legitimate or respectable cases for value realism out there? (Moral realism is arguably a subset).

The appeal of fictional conflict

Robert Wiblin asks why stories celebrate conflict rather than compromise:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society…it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds…

We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

Incidentally, the one line I still remember from Avatar:

They’re not going to give up their home — they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want.

Nothing at all…oh, except control over the destruction of everything they care about. You’re right, you really have no bargaining power. As Rob elaborates further, the premise of the extreme conflict was so flimsy, one must infer that it was pretty important to have an extreme conflict.

Rob guesses the popularity of such stubborn warring in our stories is to do with what we subconsciously want our tastes to say about us. When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.

I think he might be roughly right. But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?

I think because there is no point in demonstrating that you will compromise. As a default, everyone can be expected to compromise, because it’s the rational thing to do at the time. However it’s often good to look like you won’t easily compromise, so that other people will try to win you over with better deals. Celebrating ruthless adherence to idealistic principles is a way of advertising that you are insane, for the purpose of improving your bargaining position. If you somehow convince me that you’re the kind of person who would die fighting for their magic tree, I’ll probably try to come up with a pretty appealing deal for you before I even bring up my interest in checking out the deposits under any trees you have.

Of course the whole point of being a bloody-minded idealist is lost if you keep it a secret. So you probably won’t do that. Which means just not going out of your way to celebrate uncompromising fights to the death is a credible signal of willingness to compromise.

Is it obvious that pain is very important?

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes [...].  –George Orwell, 1984 via Brian Tomasik , who seems to agree that just considering pain should be enough to tell you that it’s very important.

It seems quite a few people I know consider pain to have some kind of special status of badness, and that preventing it is thus much more important than I think it. I wouldn’t object, except that they apply this in their ethics, rather than just their preferences regarding themselves. For instance arguing that other people shouldn’t have children, because of the possibility of those children suffering pain. I think pain is less important to most people relative to their other values than such negative utilitarians and similar folk believe.

One such argument for the extreme importance of pain is something like ‘it’s obvious’. When you are in a lot of pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. Hell, even when you are in a small amount of pain, mitigating it seems a high priority. When you are looking at something in extreme pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. So pain is just obviously the most important bad thing there is. The feeling of wanting a boat and not having one just can’t compare to pain. The goodness of lying down at the end of a busy day is nothing next to the badness of even relatively small pains.

I hope I do this argument justice, as I don’t have a proper written example of it at hand.

An immediate counter is that when we are not in pain, or directly looking at things in pain, pain doesn’t seem so important. For instance, though many people in the thralls of a hangover consider it to be pretty bad, they are repeatedly willing to trade half a day of hangover for an evening of drunkenness. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘that’s just evidence that life is bad – so bad that they are desperate to relieve themselves from the torment of their sober existences! So desperate that they can’t think of tomorrow!’. But people have been known to plan drinking events, and even to be in quite good spirits in anticipation of the whole thing.

It is implicit in the argument from ‘pain seems really bad close up’ that pain does not seem so bad from a distance. How then to know whether your near or far assessment is better?

You could say that up close is more accurate, because everything is more accurate with more detail. Yet since this is a comparison between different values, being up close to one relative to others should actually bias the judgement.

Perhaps up close is more accurate because at a distance we do our best not to think about pain, because it is the worst thing there is.

If you are like many people, when you are eating potato chips, you really want to eat more potato chips. Concern for your health, your figure, your experience of nausea all pale into nothing when faced with your drive to eat more potato chips. We don’t take that as good evidence that really deep down you want to eat a lot of potato chips, and you are just avoiding thinking about it all the rest of the time to stop yourself from going crazy. How is that different?

Are there other reasons to pay special attention to the importance of pain to people who are actually experiencing it?

Added: I think I have a very low pain threshold, and am in a lot of pain far more often than most people. I also have bad panic attacks from time to time, which I consider more unpleasant than any pain I have come across, and milder panic attacks frequently. So it’s not that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I agree that suffering comes with (or consists of) an intense urge to stop the suffering ASAP. I just don’t see that this means that I should submit to those urges the rest of the time. To the contrary! It’s bad enough to devote that much time to such obsessions. When I am not in pain I prefer to work on other goals I have, like writing interesting blog posts, rather than say trying to discover better painkillers. I am not willing to experiment with drugs that could help if I think they might interfere with my productivity in other ways. Is that wrong?