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Cynicism in Ev-Psych (and Econ?)

14 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 February 2009 03:06PM

Though I know more about the former than the latter, I begin to suspect that different styles of cynicism prevail in evolutionary psychology than in microeconomics.

Evolutionary psychologists are absolutely and uniformly cynical about the real reason why humans are universally wired with a chunk of complex purposeful functional circuitry X (e.g. an emotion) - we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness in the ancestral environment, full stop.

Evolutionary psychologists are mildly cynical about the environmental circumstances that activate and maintain an emotion.  For example, if you fall in love with the body, mind, and soul of some beautiful mate, an evolutionary psychologist would like to check up on you in ten years to see whether the degree to which you think your mate's mind is still beautiful, correlates with independent judges' ratings of how physically attractive that mate still is.

But it wouldn't be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don't really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment.

Robin, on the other hand, often seems to think that this general type of cynicism is the default explanation and that anything else bears a burden of proof - why suppose an explanation that invokes a genuine virtue, when a selfish desire will do?

Of course my experience with having deep discussions with economists mostly consists of talking to Robin, but I suspect that this is at least partially reflective of a difference between the ev-psych and economic notions of parsimony.

Ev-psychers are trying to be parsimonious with how complex of an adaptation they postulate, and how cleverly complicated they are supposing natural selection to have been.

Economists... well, it's not my field, but maybe they're trying be parsimonious by having just a few simple motives that play out in complex ways via consequentialist calculations?

Quoth Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (famous EPers): 

"The science of understanding living organization is very different from physics or chemistry, where parsimony makes sense as a theoretical criterion.  The study of organisms is more like reverse engineering, where one may be dealing with a large array of very different components whose heterogeneous organization is explained by the way in which they interact to produce a functional outcome.  Evolution, the constructor of living organisms, has no privileged tendency to build into designs principles of operation that are simple and general."

One consequence of this is that it's more parsimonious - under the evolutionary prior - to postulate many smaller simpler adaptations than one big clever complicated adaptation.

One simple way to signal quality X is by having quality X.  But then other simple modifications might accrete around that.

So cynicism in the style of evolutionary psychology might be, "Why yes, so far as your explicit cognition is concerned, you love them for their beautiful mind.  It's just that without the beautiful body, you probably wouldn't find yourself loving their mind so much.  And once the beautiful body fades, you may find their ideas appearing less attractive too."  Mind you, this is not an actual experimental result.  It's just the sort of thing that a cynical evolutionary psychologist would look for - a cross-wiring between a couple of emotional circuits.

Even then, the cynic would bear a burden of proof, because a devil's-advocate parsimonious evolutionary psychologist would say, "How do you know the extra circuit is there?  Maybe evolution wasn't that clever.  Mates looked for signals of long-term commitment, so their partners evolved an actual long-term commitment mechanism when a mate was of high enough quality - can you show me an experiment that demonstrates it's any more complicated than that?"

By and large, evolutionary psychologists don't expect people to be clever, just evolution.  It's a foundational assumption that there's no explicit cognitive desire to increase inclusive genetic fitness, and no reason to think that anyone (except a professional evolutionary psychologist) would explicitly know in advance which behaviors increased fitness in the ancestral environment.  The organism, rather than being programmed with machiavellian subconscious long-term knowledge, is programmed with (genuine) emotions that activate under the right circumstances to steer them the right way (in the ancestral environment).

In economics, perhaps, it is more conventional and less alarming to suppose that people are doing explicitly clever and complicated things in the pursuit of explicit goals.  But of this it is not really my place to speak; I'm just trying to describe my own side of the contrast I see.

Now it makes sense to suppose that we have certain general faculties - simple emotional circuits - that make us seek high status: that we are magnetically attracted to behaviors whenever we imagine that behavior will make others look on us fondly.

And it makes to suppose that we have a general faculty - a relatively simple emotional circuit - that makes us flinch away from explanations and views of our own behavior that put us in a negative light, and flinch toward explanations that put ourselves in a positive light.

So from an ev-psych standpoint, we can expect a lot of cynicism to be, in general, justified.  It wouldn't even be surprising if people were relatively more attracted to bodies, and relatively less attracted to minds, on a purely psychological level, than they said/thought they were.

But to modify the emotional ontology by entirely deleting virtuous emotions... to say that, even on a psychological level, no human being was ever attracted to a mate's mind, nor ever wanted to be honest in a business transaction and not just signal honesty... is not quite what evolutionary psychologists do, most of the time.  They are out to come up with an evolutionary explanation of why humans have the standard emotions, rather than telling us that we have nonstandard emotions instead.  Maybe in economics this sounds less alarming because people routinely come up with simplified models?  But in ev-psych it seems to hearken back to the bad old Freudian days of counterintuitiveness - we're excited that the intuitive view of human emotion turns out to be evolutionarily explainable.  Including a lot of things that people would rather not talk about but which they do recognize as realistic.  And including a lot of phenomena that go on behind the scenes but which don't much change our view of which emotions we have, just our view of when emotions activate, in what real context.  On that score we are happy to be cynical and challenge intuition.

Comments (39)

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Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 11 February 2009 03:26:53PM 0 points [-]

we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness, full stop.

if evolutionary psychologists actually believe this it is a good example of why they aren't taken very seriously. what about spandrels?

Comment author: Zubon 11 February 2009 04:08:03PM 0 points [-]

You have hedges suggesting low confidence in how accurately you have described the economic position, such as making half the econ sentences questions. That presents a rather weak foil/contrast for the argument; it might have been stronger with simply, "One simple way to signal quality X is by having quality X." ("Signaling is not always about sending signals"?)

If bringing economics into it is so necessary that it goes in the title, this sounds like a case where more information should be gathered before even proposing answers.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 February 2009 04:25:29PM 0 points [-]

Nazgul, have you been reading the works of the anti-scientist Stephen J. Gould?

[Link fixed, thanks Tyrrell.]

Comment author: Robin_Brandt 11 February 2009 04:30:26PM 1 point [-]

I´m really curious to know what you think about the other branch of ep that don´t rely as much on the more unstable assumptions of Tooby & Cosmides. I first dove into this field when I found an incredible volume titled The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology by Dunbar(leader of EP program in Liverpool) and Barett, it seems awsome! It takes a couple of steps back in certainty, and is a lot more open for new developments in biology i.e. Nieche-construction(Laland) theory and Multi-level selection(David Sloan Wilson), also the speed of natural selection, the power of culture. I can not go into more detail because I don´t have access to the volume at this moment. But it is very recommended reading, if you are not already familiar with this branch of EP in the broad.

I would really like a reply from you, this is something very important for me! I first discovered EP from you and your work has been my main teacher about reality and the mind for the last 4 years! Have also been constructing a mails to you and other heroes and thinkers for ages, but I often do not feel smart enough to have the courage to contact you, I respect your time so much. But I am starting to grow up now, and might send that concise smart mail some day!

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 February 2009 04:36:58PM 1 point [-]

Dunbar's a familiar name and in good standing so far as I know, and I know that Tooby and Cosmides (though brilliant) have a tendency to go too far occasionally (e.g. questioning whether humans actually have any such capacity as general intelligence, which I should maybe talk to them about one day). It sounds like you can trust the handbook for an overview of possibilities and current developments, but remember that openness is a different stage of inquiry from saying that all those ideas are actually right. For example, Wilson's multilevel selection as a mathematical formalism is tautological, I think, but it's a big step from there to saying that we should frequently see group-level pressures overcoming a countervailing individual selection pressure.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 11 February 2009 05:18:52PM 2 points [-]

Evolutionary psychologists are absolutely and uniformly cynical about the real reason why humans are universally wired with a chunk of complex purposeful functional circuitry X (e.g. an emotion) - we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness in the ancestral environment, full stop.

One big problem is that they tend to systematically ignore memes.

Human brains are parasitised by replicators that hijack them for their own ends. The behaviour of a catholic priest has relatively little to do with the inclusive genetic fitness of the priest - and a lot to do with the inclusive genetic fitness of the Catholicism meme. Pinker and many of the other evo-psych guys still show little sign of "getting" this.

Comment author: Nanani 10 August 2009 01:50:53AM -2 points [-]

Actually, no. The priest's siblings and the decendants of those siblings got a boost from being related to a priest. The same is true of families with a daughter who became a nun.

Also, the relatives who now find themselves with a member of a church in their immediate circle will feel a much higher pressure to have a lot of kids, as per the catholic doctrine.

It really is about inclusive fitness.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 July 2012 09:36:14PM 1 point [-]

No it ain't. Catholicism wasn't universal in EEA.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister2 11 February 2009 05:26:30PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, the link in your reply to nazgulnarsil links to this very post. I'm assuming that you intended to link to that recent post of yours on SJG, but I'll leave it to you to find it :).

Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 11 February 2009 06:46:22PM 0 points [-]

Huh, I was unaware that the whole concept of spandrels had originated with Gould. Point taken, one can reinterpret seemingly random noise as being itself an adaptation that overcomes simple hill climbing perhaps. Mutations themselves are a random walk, selection is not random. Environment acts as a hill, organisms as hill climbing algorithms, with the top of the hill being maximally efficient use of resources for reproduction. Is this correct?

Comment author: Aaron5 11 February 2009 07:11:47PM 0 points [-]

I second Tim's post. Dawkins was really onto something with the idea of memes. As we learn more about the intricacies of how dopamine works, we'll come closer to developing a more robust way of talking about memes.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 11 February 2009 07:37:34PM 2 points [-]

nazgulnarsil, the organisms themselves are not hill-climbing algorithms; an organism doesn't move from its place on the hill. Natural selection is the hill-climbing algorithm.

Comment author: Patri_Friedman 11 February 2009 07:59:14PM 2 points [-]

Awesome post. I love both these ways of looking at the world, have realized for years that they are in conflict, but had not seen the conflict illustrated this cleanly before. In theory, people are rational. In practice, they are kluged together out of proteins by the blind idiot god.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 11 February 2009 08:19:39PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, you have misunderstood me if you think I typically suggest "you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind" or that I say "no human being was ever attracted to a mate's mind, nor ever wanted to be honest in a business transaction and not just signal honesty." I suspect we tend to talk about different levels of causation; I tend to focus on more distal causes while you focus on more proximate causes. I'm also not sure you understand what I mean by "signaling."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 February 2009 08:50:32PM 7 points [-]

Robin, how else should I understand this:

(Eliezer) Raymond Smullyan's books aren't just signaling that he's high-status enough to write logic puzzles in informal language. He's using informal language because he wants you to understand his logic puzzles, and he's high-status enough to get away with using informal language.

(Robin's reply) Eliezer, humans evolved tendencies to take the actions that signal high status and when possible to consciously believe that such actions were done for some other more noble purposes.

Comment author: nobody.really 11 February 2009 09:36:04PM 0 points [-]

Perhaps I’m unduly influenced by a study of economics, but I tend to think that people respond to incentives, often seeking to maximize ... something. When I encounter an anomaly, my first reaction is not to doubt that people respond to incentives, but to revise my understanding of what people have an incentive to do.

One example in experimental economics is the Ultimatum Game. You are offered $10, no strings attached. Do you take it? Classical economics would suggest yes. But evidence shows that you will actually be unlikely to take it under the following circumstances: You are told that some random person X was given $100 to split between himself and you. He has decided to keep $90 and offer you $10. If you accept the offer, you get $10 and he gets $90; if you reject, you both get nothing. All over the world, people from various cultures respond to this situation in the same way: overwhelmingly they reject. People seem to take offense at the inequity of a 9:1 division of a windfall gain.

Turning down free money just for spite? This shows that people are irrational and don’t really respond to incentives, right? Perhaps. Or perhaps it shows that people have an incentive to demand equitable treatment, and to punish those who don’t behave accordingly.

But that explanation’s just silly. This is a “one-off” game; there’s no long-term relationship between you and this unknown Mr. X, so there’s no rational basis to worry about the future ramifications of your interactions with Mr. X, right? Perhaps. Or perhaps there’s a game-theoretical/evolutionary advantage in treating a broad range of apparently “one-off” games as repeated games. After all, research on the Ultimatum Game shows not merely that most people reject offers of less than 45%; it also shows that most people in the role of Mr. X know that offers of less than 45% will be rejected, and therefore know to offer more than 45%. For whatever reasons, people’s tendency to demand equitable treatment – even in “one-off” games – has resulted in a situation in which players tend to get equitable treatment, just as if they were expecting to have repeated interactions. It’s hard to call this strategy irrational if it works.

To the extent that evolutionary psychology has merit, I would expect it to merge with economics. I don’t mean that as a prediction. I mean that as a statement of philosophy: economists would want to adapt their models as necessary to make accurate predictions of human behavior. But I also expect that economics would remain economics – that is, economists will continue to look for ways to explain actions in terms of promoting the self-interest of the actor. And that’s pretty consistent with evolutionary psych, too.

Comment author: Aaron5 11 February 2009 10:57:34PM 0 points [-]

Psychology (evolutionary or otherwise) seems to be merging with economics already, what with Kahneman getting the Nobel and all. The problem is how much can the intricacies of psychologies be simplified so that behavior can be modeled accurately. Starting off with a simple model of self-interest seems like it was a pretty good start, all things considered.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 12 February 2009 02:11:23AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, when I said "humans evolved tendencies ... to consciously believe that such actions were done for some other more noble purposes" I didn't mean that we create complex mental plans to form such mistaken beliefs. Nor am I contradicting your saying "he wants you to understand his logic puzzles"; that may well be his conscious intention.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 12 February 2009 02:16:22AM 1 point [-]

Robin, I'm still unclear on what you are saying. Do you mean Smullyan's use of informal language doesn't actually make sense as an unbiased best guess as to how to get people to understand Smullyan's logic puzzles (whatever his conscious motives)?

Comment author: Sideways2 12 February 2009 02:44:18AM 0 points [-]

nobody really:

The results of the ultimatum game do vary a great deal between cultures. Here's an example study with interesting results:

https://www.middlebury.edu/NR/rdonlyres/94E229FB-760A-4F67-ACE2-7AA76B258603/0/Wilson_paper.pdf

(or http://tinyurl.com/c46egx if that's too long to handle)

From the abstract: "proposers in the "ultimatum game" almost invariable made offers that split a day's wage at 50/50... we find that responders invoke an exceedingly strong norm of a 50/50 split or nothing at all."

Take a look at tables 2 and 3a/3b--both groups that Bahry and Wilson studied had about 50% rejection rates of offers that would have given the whole pot away. And 8 out of 24 people who were offered more than half the pot actually rejected the offer!

Now, that response can be interpreted as a desire to signal that altruism is more important to the responder than money. But there aren't significant genetic differences between different cultures, where the outcomes of the ultimatum game vary widely. So how can evolutionary psychology explain why these results vary?

I'm skeptical of evolutionary psychology as a scientific endeavor, because the basic theory can explain anything in retrospect--but I've never seen a researcher make a prediction based on EP and then verify it via testing. Of course, that doesn't mean it hasn't happened--I've read very little on the field.

Comment author: HH2 12 February 2009 03:05:50AM 0 points [-]

Sideways Evolutionary psychology is about adaptation to one's environment. Where cultures differ environments differ: a hunter-gatherer tribe may be so closely interdependent that their optimal strategies in the ultimatum game would differ than those of people in more individualistic-independent environments. In a tribal setting, direct competition for resources or sexual partners might be more intense: in such a setting, if you're directly competing with the person proposing the split, it makes no sense to accept less than 50/50 - you're just giving them an advantage in your competition for mates and resources. Imagine an incident thousands of years ago: "help me carry this buffalo I killed back to the caves and you can have a quarter of the meat." If you're directly competing with the proponent, you'd putting yourself at a huge reproductive disadvantage if you helped him. [I'm obviously illustrating; I have no idea whether quantity of buffalo meat would have had any effect on mate choice.] That outcome would be different if the two men were retreating to different tribes and thus different mating pools.

The point is that the choice in the ultimatum game has different consequences based on the environment in which it is made. I believe that we're genetically predisposed to demand a "fair" share rather than accepting whatever because we spent most of our evolution in the first setting, where accepting a small share puts you at a disadvantage with your competitor. Those who successfully overcome bias in this setting may accept any positive amount, given that in modern society we're not in as direct competition with each other as our tribal ancestors were.

As for evolutionary psychology as a science, it's difficult to construct experiments that would actually test predictions. I find that experimental psychology contains a lot of noise [Thaler has shown how much setting affects experimental result] and so far it seems to have been difficult to construct natural experiments without too much noise. Our best bet is to make predictions for the future now and hope someone resolves it in 4587.

Comment author: frelkins 12 February 2009 03:07:59AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Sideways2 12 February 2009 05:04:36AM 0 points [-]

HH: "Evolutionary psychology is about adaptation to one's environment. Where cultures differ environments differ..."

This doesn't sound like evolutionary psychology to me. It sounds like just regular old psychology.

Your point re: noise in EP experiments is well taken. But if EP can't be tested by experiment, what use is it?

The human brain is a product of evolution. But as Tim Tyler and Aaron pointed out, any particular human brain is also the product of a developmental process that happens in a memetic environment. Given the brain's plasticity, I'm leery of claims that concepts like "fairness" are evolved--especially when that concept varies widely among cultures and individuals.

Comment author: Brian_Macker 12 February 2009 01:38:17PM 0 points [-]

"Psychology (evolutionary or otherwise) seems to be merging with economics already"

Yes, and that's unfortunate because emotion is not all that important to understanding the business cycle. There is a perfectly good explanation that shows that an economy made of quite rational agents [in the economic sense] will generate the business cycle. Not only does it explain the cycle itself but particular aspects of the cycle.

Emotive economic theories are not new. To believe that the business cycle is due to "animal spirits" like Keynes did is wrong and will lead to bad solutions. It's like believing that loosing altitude on your plane is due to gremlins on the underbelly weighing it down and therefore the best way to deal with it is to rub them off by flying even lower over some trees.

We've set up an economic system that is based on a banking pyramid scheme and of course people become excited as they falsely believe they are raking in real earning based on asset appreciation. Then of course they get upset and panic with the fraud becomes apparent later. Those are effects, not causes.

I wouldn't mind moving on to the emotional aspects of the business cycle if they were recognized for what they are, effects not causes. Also if there was an understanding that rational in the economic sense and emotive in the psychological sense are orthogonal concepts. One can be a rational economic actor and be emotive also. I really don't see how there is much difference in behavior between an rational non-emotive actor and a rational emotive actor in the economy and in response to the business cycle.

After all it is rational to buy stocks as they rise and sell them as they fall. It is rational to respond to the government setting interest rates below market by borrowing.

One thing about rational actors is that the are not presumed omniscient. They can be tricked by sophisticated pyramid schemes like fractional reserve banking. In fact it's such a sophisticated scheme that most economists, let alone most people, don't recognize how it is fraudulent, and why it leads to boom then bust.

BTW, in the economic sense the non-rational actors are what we would call the insane. The term rational actor is suppose to cover every sane person.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 12 February 2009 01:50:16PM 1 point [-]

My latest post hopefully clarifies my position here.

Comment author: nobody.really 12 February 2009 05:20:41PM 0 points [-]

The results of the ultimatum game do vary a great deal between cultures.

Yup, there’s some variance among people of different cultures.

Just to clarify, my point is that experimental results show people acting in a manner inconsistent with what a simple understanding of self-interest would predict. That fact remains true across cultures – albeit to differing degrees.

I'm skeptical of evolutionary psychology as a scientific endeavor, because the basic theory can explain anything in retrospect--but I've never seen a researcher make a prediction based on EP and then verify it via testing.

Funny you would say that....

Where cultures differ environments differ: a hunter-gatherer tribe may be so closely interdependent that their optimal strategies in the ultimatum game would differ than those of people in more individualistic-independent environments. In a tribal setting, direct competition for resources or sexual partners might be more intense: in such a setting, if you're directly competing with the person proposing the split, it makes no sense to accept less than 50/50....

I like it! That seems like a sound basis for predicting that people in small, close-knit communities would demand greater equity than people in larger, more atomistic societies.

But the last time I looked at experimental results, I saw the exact opposite outcome. That is, people from cosmopolitan, market-based economies offered and demanded GREATER equity; people from more traditional, isolated societies offered and demanded less.

The authors hypothesized that people in market economies were accustomed to interacting with strangers. They identified with BEING a stranger, and therefore identified with the need to accord equity to strangers. And they recognized that building a reputation of rejecting inequitable treatment might prove expensive in the short term but pay off during future negotiations – either with this specific individual, or with others who had learned of your reputation.

In contrast, people in isolated societies were accustomed to frequent, repeated dealing with kin, punctuated by rare interactions with strangers. In such societies there is much less value placed on equity. When dealing with kinsmen, the terms of any one transaction are not so important given the high degree of sharing – both in an economic and gene-pool sense. But the calculus for dealing with strangers is completely different. Because they did not expect the interaction would be repeated, the benefits of establishing a reputation for demanding equity were unlikely to compensate for the short-run costs. And acts of “altruism” would be less likely to result in benefits to your gene pool than acts of selfishness.

Having now set this contrast sharply into focus, I must sheepishly acknowledge that I haven't found a citation to the studies I have in mind. Sorry!

Comment author: nobody.really 12 February 2009 05:24:47PM 0 points [-]

Given the brain's plasticity, I'm leery of claims that concepts like "fairness" are evolved--especially when that concept varies widely among cultures and individuals.

Nature vs. nurture in the mind. I’m often pondering the extent to which the appeal of music is a matter of nature vs. nurture. Arguably the Western harmonic system derives from the overtone series derived from plucking a string. Aha, harmonics derive from nature! Yet other cultures have very different senses of harmony. So harmonic derives from nurture. But then, at least some harmonic systems also appear to reflect an overtone series – just the series derived from the vibration of a bell, or a metal tube, or a triangle, or a drum. So maybe humans are naturally inclined to develop an appreciation for harmony based on an overtone series, but nurture determines which overtone series we are most exposed to?

But are concepts of “fairness” a function of nature? There's a growing school of thought that moral instincts, like visual ones, are a product of evolution. When we encounter visual situations that rarely arose throughout the period of human evolution, our instincts can lead us to interpretations that conflict with reality; this is an evolutionary explanation of optical illusions. Similarly, when we encounter moral situations that rarely arose throughout the period of human evolution, our instincts may lead us to decisions that are hard to reconcile with what we regard as moral behavior. That is, our " moral instincts" can lead us to immoral behavior.

Comment author: nobody.really 12 February 2009 05:25:39PM 0 points [-]

Given the brain's plasticity, I'm leery of claims that concepts like "fairness" are evolved--especially when that concept varies widely among cultures and individuals.

Nature vs. nurture in the mind. I’m often pondering the extent to which the appeal of music is a matter of nature vs. nurture. Arguably the Western harmonic system derives from the overtone series derived from plucking a string. Aha, harmonics derive from nature! Yet other cultures have very different senses of harmony. So harmonic derives from nurture. But then, at least some harmonic systems also appear to reflect an overtone series – just the series derived from the vibration of a bell, or a metal tube, or a triangle, or a drum. So maybe humans are naturally inclined to develop an appreciation for harmony based on an overtone series, but nurture determines which overtone series we are most exposed to?

But are concepts of “fairness” a function of nature? There's a growing school of thought that moral instincts, like visual ones, are a product of evolution. When we encounter visual situations that rarely arose throughout the period of human evolution, our instincts can lead us to interpretations that conflict with reality; this is an evolutionary explanation of optical illusions. Similarly, when we encounter moral situations that rarely arose throughout the period of human evolution, our instincts may lead us to decisions that are hard to reconcile with what we regard as moral behavior. That is, our " moral instincts" can lead us to immoral behavior.

Comment author: nobody.really 12 February 2009 05:35:07PM 0 points [-]

Psychology (evolutionary or otherwise) seems to be merging with economics already

Yes, and that's unfortunate because emotion is not all that important to understanding the business cycle. There is a perfectly good explanation that shows that an economy made of quite rational agents [in the economic sense] will generate the business cycle....

One thing about rational actors is that the are not presumed omniscient. They can be tricked....

This gets back to the main theme: We want the simplest explanation that accounts for the data. Yet I know of no test for “simplest.” Different people can in good faith look at competing explanatory theories and reach different conclusions about which is simplest.

To the extent that rather simple understandings of self-interested behavior explain the business cycle, I tend to agree that we need not look for more. And given the difficulty of measuring emotions, they seem like particularly unhelpful explanatory variables. I don’t mean to dismiss the possibility that they play a role; I just mean to advocate exploring all the other variables first. Yup, the scientific process is biased in favor of explaining things in terms of easily-measured variables; deal with it.

Yet evidence shows that people are “predictably irrational” in two ways. 1) They make predictions that are not only inaccurate, but predictably so; see the research into happiness. 2) They behave in ways that seem manifestly counter to (our understanding of) their self-interest; see the Ultimatum Game. How should economics deal with these dynamics?

Arguably, Dynamic 1 poses no problem for economics. Economists don’t study what you predict; they study what you do – whether or not based on a prediction.

Dynamic 2 is the real challenge to the “rational man” thesis. What conclusions do we draw from the fact that actors do not merely err, but that the errors reflect a predictable bias?

Some people cling to the rational man thesis regardless. They regard economics as a kind of positivist religion. When they find people acting in a manner inconsistent with what our understanding of economics predicts, they shake their fingers and say “Tsk, tsk, obviously there’s something wrong with them.”

Others look on economics as a social science. When they find an anomaly, they say, “Wow, obviously there’s something wrong with our data or our understanding. We presume that they’re behaving rationally, so clearly there’s more to this situation than we yet appreciate.”

And still others conclude that there is nothing “wrong” here; rather, the idea of rationality itself need to be modified to, for example, account for thought patterns that have proven adaptive over time even if they produce maladaptive (“irrational”) behavior on occasion.

In the abstract, I can’t say which of these explanations is the simplest way to reconcile the data.

Comment author: Sideways2 12 February 2009 06:27:16PM 0 points [-]

So maybe humans are naturally inclined to develop an appreciation for harmony based on an overtone series, but nurture determines which overtone series we are most exposed to?

Music appreciation has to happen within culture as well as physics. You can probably think of several musical genres that you don't like--but I would be astonished to hear of even a single genre that some genetic group liked, and others couldn't learn to enjoy.

When we encounter visual situations that rarely arose throughout the period of human evolution, our instincts can lead us to interpretations that conflict with reality; this is an evolutionary explanation of optical illusions. Similarly, when we encounter moral situations that rarely arose throughout the period of human evolution, our instincts may lead us to decisions that are hard to reconcile with what we regard as moral behavior.

When I see an optical illusion -- like Wile E. Coyote trying to run into a tunnel painted onto a cliff face -- my visual cortex is fooled, even if I know it's an illusion, and even if I know the principle behind the illusion. But the moral equivalent doesn't persist: once you correct your knowledge or your reasoning, nothing is left of your indignation based on faulty reasoning or incorrect evidence.

It appears that moral "biases" can be "overcome", but visual "biases" can only be worked around. I think that's evidence in favor of an "nature" explanation for optical illusions and a "nurture" explanation for moral biases.

Comment author: Brian_Macker 13 February 2009 03:00:54AM 0 points [-]

Nobody,

"Seemingly irrational action is rational, that is, has an aim. To appraise it as irrational, the appraiser merely imposes some other external source of value."-Michael Rozeff

If and individual spends their life hunting for Bigfoot they are acting rationally as far as economics goes. The are taking action with a goal in mind.

Economics can't and shouldn't make value judgments about goal directed actions.

Economics (even particular schools of economic) have specialized terms that do NOT mean the same thing as common usage.

There's nothing charming about quarks and yet the term "charm" is used in physics.

" We want the simplest explanation that accounts for the data." We want the best theory in a Popperian sense. One measure is simplicity but another measure of that is the theory that explains the most. Austrian business cycle theory explains many aspects of the business cycle that other theories do not. It can explain stagflation for instance whereas Keynesian theory cannot. It explains why commodity prices rise more than average price increases. Etc.

Comment author: mtraven 14 February 2009 06:08:57PM 0 points [-]

I can't help notice the unquestioned assumption that it is more virtuous to love someone for their mind than for their body. I assume that underlying this is that you love your own minds and despise your own bodies, or are at best indifferent to them.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 February 2009 06:50:00PM 4 points [-]

Heh. The only unquestioned assumption here is that it is widely believed to be more virtuous to love someone for their mind than for their body. This is about signaling, not virtue.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 14 February 2009 09:32:45PM 0 points [-]

I assume that underlying this is that you... despise your own bodies, or are at best indifferent to them.

Why do you think this?

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 15 February 2009 04:50:11AM 0 points [-]

"I assume that underlying this is that you love your own minds and despise your own bodies, or are at best indifferent to them."

Well, duh.

Comment author: a_soulless_automaton 15 February 2009 03:18:54PM 0 points [-]

That's a bit too strong, I think.

I am my mind, of course. My body is just a convenient support system for the mind. But I'm not indifferent to it, much as I am not indifferent to the computer I am typing this post on--it's a useful tool, to which I hold a certain sentimental attachment, and with which my mind can accomplish things.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 15 February 2009 03:57:28PM 0 points [-]

I love reality and try not to get caught up unnecessarily in whether something is of my mind or not of my mind.

Comment author: realitygrill 16 August 2009 06:50:43PM 0 points [-]

Well, what about the unconscious? This article makes me think the emotions may be more culturally based/trained than I would have thought:

http://www.yale.edu/acmelab/articles/Bypassing_the_Will_2005.pdf

"But it wouldn't be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don't really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment."

Isn't this exactly what cognitive dissonance & rationalization would say?

Comment author: [deleted] 06 November 2013 07:20:10PM *  1 point [-]

But it wouldn't be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don't really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment.

Why would loving someone for their mind be any more virtuous than loving them for their body? Not liking stupid people is usually considered more arrogant than not liking ugly people.