Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

[Link] Threat erosion

1 Post author: Benquo 16 March 2017 04:30AM

Comments (2)

Comment author: Benquo 16 March 2017 04:31:53AM *  1 point [-]

For instance, there is a line in the sandwich shop. From a perspective so naive to our ubiquitous norms that it is hard to imagine, you might wonder why the person standing at the back does so, when the shopkeeper is much more likely to get sandwiches for people at the front. The reason of course is that if he were to position himself in the ample physical space between the person at the front and the shopkeeper, there would be some kind of uproar. Not only would the person at the front be angry, but everyone in the line would back them up, and the shopkeeper probably wouldn’t even grant a sandwich to the line-jumper.

[...]

If our norms work well enough, we might go for years all peacefully standing in line, without anyone ever trying to push in at the front, because why would they?

An upshot is that if serious norm violations are rare, people might become pragmatically ill-equipped to respond to them. They might forget how to, or they might stop having the right resources to do so, physical or institutional. Or if generations are passing with no violations, the new generation might just fail to ever learn that they are meant to respond to violations, or learn what that would look like, since they never observe it. And maybe nobody notices any of this until norms are being violated and they find they have no response.

For instance, suppose that occasionally people sort of wander toward the front of the line in ambiguous circumstances, hoping to evade punishment by feigning innocent confusion. And those in the line always loudly point out the ‘error’ and the room scowls and the person is virtually always scared into getting in line. But one day someone just blatantly walks up to the front of the line. People point out the ‘error’ but the person says it is not an error: they are skipping the line.

The people in the line have never seen this. They only have experience quietly mentioning that they observe a possible norm violation, because that has always been plenty threatening. Everyone has become so used to believing that there is terrifying weaponry ready to be pulled out if there really were a real norm violation, that nobody has any experience pulling it out.

And perhaps it has been so long since anyone did pull it out that the specific weapons they stashed away for this wouldn’t even work any more. Maybe the threat used to be that everyone watching would gossip to others in the town about how bad you were. But now in a modern sandwich shop in a large city, that isn’t even a threat.

The world is full of sufficiently different people that in the real world, maybe someone would just punch you in the face. But it seems easy to imagine a case where nobody does anything. Where they haven’t been in this situation for so long, they can’t remember whether there is another clause in their shared behavior pattern that says if you punch someone because they got in line in front of you at the sandwich shop that you should be punished too.

Comment author: MrMind 16 March 2017 08:53:46AM 0 points [-]

I'll add a consideration: threat erosion might exists in the band between tribalism and institutional violence.
I think it doesn't happen very often that someone doesn't push back if there's a clear violation of a social norm in a close group. On the other side, we have a police force exactly because violence sometimes must be applied, but in a controlled and effective way.
When social instinct doesn't apply, maybe because the violation happens in Far mode, but it doesn't fall under a violation of the law either, then yes, threat erosion is almost a given.