Tag Archives: society

Why the world has gone crazy

Do you feel like the world has gone crazy of late? I do. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Western civilization was capable of making relatively rational political decisions that crossed party lines and balanced priorities. Now all of a sudden, we are in a world where people cheer for Donald Trump even as his trade policies destroy their jobs, or cheer for Brexit as it threatens to obliterate their livelihoods, or doubt climate change even as they either roast in overpowering heat or freeze in a roaring polar vortex liberated from our broken North Pole.

Just watching this weird collective calamity unfold freaks me out, and if Twitter is anything to go by, I don’t seem to be the only person feeling this way.

So what’s going on? What happened to the world? When did our society get so very stupid? I believe there’s a simple explanation, and I’m hoping that sharing it will help.

Human beings are the most dominant species on the planet not because of our intelligence, I’d propose, but because of language. Neanderthal man had a larger cranial capacity than Homo Sapiens and may well have been more intelligent on an individual basis, yet we out-competed the Neaderthals handily. Why? Because human beings are both smart and social. Language allows us to propagate information and learn from each other to an extent that no other species on Earth is capable of. We think and act collectively, and that makes us unbeatable (to date, at least).

However, just because we have intelligence and language, that doesn’t mean that the rest of how we share information is fundamentally different from the way that any other species does it. There are a lot of social species that can learn and cooperate. Ants and bees are damned good at it. Huge shoals of fish adapt in milliseconds to avoid predators. Vast herds of wildebeest direct themselves to water sources unknown to most in the group as if by magic.

The mechanisms by which all these species make decisions are pretty similar. You start off with a few individuals expressing a preference or an idea that their group-mates then start to copy. As the animals mingle, the good ideas (usually with a few more adherents) tend to propagate faster than the bad ones (with less). Eventually, almost every member of the group is behaving the same way and a collective decision has been made. This mechanism produces decent decisions an amazing amount of the time. Try Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy for an astonishing account of how it works.

As it turns out, there is plenty of evidence that human beings use this same copying rule. We mimic each other’s choices far more than we let ourselves believe. In his recent book The Formula on the social causes of success, Albert-Laszo Barabasi makes the case clearly. The Knowledge Illusion by Sloman and Fernbach goes into greater depth on the same topic. Or for even more compelling evidence, try Robert Cialdini’s classic book Influence.

And why do we mimic each other? Because it’s an incredibly cheap and effective way to coordinate. The reason why nature employs almost the same algorithm in such a large number of unrelated species is because it’s the easiest one for natural selection to pick out. It would be weird if we didn’t copy each other contagiously. After all, that’s what language is basically for.

But there’s a problem here: we no longer live under the conditions in which we evolved. And the conditions we have now are basically a perfect storm for shitty decision making. Let me explain.

While I was briefly working at Princeton, I had the great fortune to meet and interact with Iain Couzin and the members of his lab. Iain was a pioneer in the study of how social animals make decisions. I watched a terrific talk by one of his postdocs outlining the specifics of the mingling-copying mechanism one day and thought to myself: I bet it doesn’t work on networks.

What I mean is: I suspected that the mingling-copying approach to group choice-adoption would work really well when animals were always moving around and encountering new opinions, but if you locked animals onto a social network, the method would start to break down. Why did I suspect this? Because if you’re always copying the same people, local opinions will reinforce. It’s going to be much harder for good ideas to propagate through the whole group because they’ll face bottlenecks and blockades. In a social network, there are only certain routes from one person to another. It might be that the only way for a good idea to reach the people it needs to convince is through someone committed to an idea that’s fundamentally at odds.

It only took about two hours of coding to both reproduce Couzin’s basic result and demonstrate that my suspicions regarding the effect of social networks were correct. Furthermore, the bigger the network, and the more biased the distribution of node connections, the worse the decision making got. (In a biased network, a few nodes have loads of links radiating out of them and most nodes have very few.)

Then, when I put the animals with the bad ideas on the nodes with the most connections, the decision-making went straight to hell. All the benefits of copying each other went out the window. Suddenly,  bad ideas were winning all the time.

This is a problem, because that same mingling-copying algorithm in our heads encourages us to build social networks that have exactly the wrong kind of bias. These networks are what’s called ‘scale free’, another term that comes up in Barabasi’s work.

Imagine that you’re choosing some music to listen to. You ask five friends, and three of them happen to recommend the same artist. You’re then more likely to listen to that artist and than the others you were given, and also more likely to share her work with the next person who asks. This means that those nodes (artists) with a lot of links (attention) tend to get even more. You’re more likely to find yourself listening to Taylor Swift than a local band, for instance, unless you’re trying really hard to do otherwise. Similarly, you’re more likely to choose Google for a search engine than DuckDuckGo, and that’s going to affect what you subsequently see. As technology has advanced, our tendency to bind ourselves into these kinds of social networks has exploded into a kind of digital pandemic.

The upshot of all this, in case it’s not already obvious, is that our natural collective decision-making instinct, when combined with technology, creates networks that degrade the quality of the decisions we make. Fortunately, we seem to be noticing. The push-back against the effects of social media have started. But unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there.

This same decision-making feedback effect drives how society allocates money to people. We assess how much a person is worth by the amount of success they already have. So, successful scientists get more rewards heaped on them. Painters who are already in the right galleries get into the right museums. And CEOs trade up to new positions with ever higher pay. It’s a feedback effect baked into our very nature as animals because we simply don’t have the time or information necessary to assess everyone exclusively on their merits.

(I can tell you from personal experience that my novels were taken more seriously after I worked at Princeton than I was before, despite the fact that the novels in question were written before I worked there. Princeton is a magic word that people use to assess likely intellectual aptitude because that’s cognitively much cheaper than trying to make a fresh assessment.)

We make up stories, of course, to justify the worth we allocate to companies, individuals, artists, etc, but stories aren’t science, and the science of how we make decisions is well understood at this point.

This is not to say that talent doesn’t count. You can’t even run a functional business unless you’re competent and hungry. Just like you can’t get your painting into even one gallery without some artistic ability. Achievement is hard work and the skills we need to succeed are very real. But those traits are just the table-stakes for the game of rich-get-richer success-roulette that follows. People consistently underestimate the effects of social feedback, just like they consistently underestimate how skewed wealth distribution curves actually are.

This is why our society is increasingly shaped by a small number of billionaires and a very large number of everyone else. Which is unfortunate, because nothing affects a person’s incentives like how much money they have. As a result, what looks like a sensible policy to the people with the most social power is inevitably going to diverge from what everyone else thinks is right, or indeed what’s actually objectively a good idea.

Of course, the more power those central individuals have, the louder their voices and the more likely that their opinions will affect decision-making. On top of that, those people directly connected to very powerful individuals have a massive incentive to support the beliefs of their bosses, otherwise their positions relative to social competitors are jeopardized. This drives the belief-systems of billionaires further away from the consensus understanding of what’s going on. They just don’t get the benefit of all the facts flowing through the rest of the social network. Consider the recent Time article on Donald Trump’s intelligence briefings for an example of what this looks like.

The upshot of this is that we make billionaires dumber, the more we pay them. This is not speculation or analogy, but a quantifiable impact you can model. The more attention billionaires receive, the less able they are to process information. And the more we power we give them, the more they’re likely to gain. And this is why we are in a global runaway cascade of stupid.

There’s another important factor that bears mentioning here. While we, as a society, are getting less able to respond rationally to unwelcome information, exactly the same process is happening inside the brains of those billionaires now running the show.

Here’s how that works. People who receive a lot of money for what they do are very likely to self-validate on that fact. What differentiates them from others is their apparent ‘success’, so they’re both likely to believe that their gains reflect some intrinsic personal quality and also to value that quality highly. After all, that’s what we all want: to be good at something and have it be recognized. And when you’re super-rich, people will line up around the block to tell you how great you are.

But as a billionaire gains more wealth, the satisfaction they gain from each bump in their fortunes decreases because it’s that much easier to achieve. They naturally habituate to the sensation, so each rush of triumph is less satisfying. This means that the more they gain, the hungrier they get for more of the same. Power and attention operate like a drug. This is another very well understood and extensively studied behavioral effect.

So here’s the next takeaway: we make the billionaires sadder, needier, and more desperate, the more we pay them.

Ironically, because of these same network effects, we’re more likely to believe that wealth and attention are valuable even as it harms us. We cannot help but be impacted by the consensus delusion that those enormous fortunes we see are somehow the product of a mysterious kind of personal excellence that we may yet be able to exhibit. We believe this despite the mounting evidence that the converse is true: that most super-rich people are idiots of our creation. Having made the people in the center of our society sick, we then acquire that same sickness. We try harder and harder to validate on the fuel that the billionaires run on even as it gets steadily less likely for us to ever succeed at it.

Historically speaking, this feedback process always goes to the same place. Those leading society lock in their wealth and make progressively worse decisions until some force comes along to disrupt the social disequilibrium that’s been created. That either happens through war, or invasion, or pandemic, or some other equally fun process. See The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel for exhaustively complete and utterly convincing details.

The upshot of all this is that without very significant social re-balancing soon, we will be unable to confront climate change or any of the dramatic consequences that arise from it. And without action, a great many will die. My guess is that the next upcoming social shock will kill about a billion people. (I’ll explain that number in a later post.) Somewhere in that difficult time, people will take to chaining oligarchs to the decks of their own yachts and letting the raging hand of Nature take its vengeance, but by then it will be too late.

Is there a solution? Of course there is. We don’t have to be blind and ignorant to social feedback effects like the civilizations before us. We have network science for crying out loud. We have neuroscience. And so we have hope.

The number of oligarchs in the world is tiny and their power resides exclusively in our imaginations. So how about each nation coordinates its efforts to simply require that all the money that anyone has over some amount, (let’s say one billion dollars), be returned to the state and distributed throughout the population.

We don’t do this out of some idea of ‘fairness’. There is no notion of fairness invoked here. Neither do we do it because it is ‘right’ in some sense. Certainly it is impossible for the billionaires to have ‘earned’ that money in any meaningful sense but arguably that’s irrelevant. We are still talking about wealth redistribution, which is always a charged concept. So why do we do it? Because the alternative is that everyone loses, including the billionaires themselves. Either we tell them that the money is going back in the pot for their own good, or all the money everyone has goes away anyway.

Who gets that money? It gets shared out equally between every adult.

Is that ‘fair’? Shouldn’t we go further and hand it out proportionally? We could, but if we do that, we create a power vacuum and start fights and the whole process will break. It’ll be like that scene in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World where they can’t decide on how many shares of the treasure there should be, only with machine guns and shrapnel bombs. So we keep it very simple. The more important step is to repeat the capping process five years later, and to keep doing it indefinitely.

But what happens if the billionaires simply hide their money overseas while the wealth survey is taking place, I hear you ask? Then they are forbidden from entering or trading in that country unless they participate in the program. Those people are watched and imprisoned if they’re caught. (Remember, these people still get to keep one dollar less than the one billion threshold. That’s still more than nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine million dollars. They still have more money than everybody else and far more than they can possibly spend. Their fate is nothing to be sad about.)

Why do I think this is a sensible approach? In short, because a social wealth distribution that cannot go over a threshold will reorganize itself. People who want to retain power won’t want their visible wealth to go over the limit so they’ll find other ways to exercise social control by sinking money back into society. This system will take time and effort to figure out, so while the system is likely to eventually be gamed somehow, in the mean time, there will be plenty of opportunity for new fortunes to arise and for rationality to return.

I see this approach as far better than trying to force-equalize society because forced equalization strips away the social incentive for individuals to succeed. It might seem fairer but it’s a surefire way to make an economy nosedive while an entrenched elite of self-appointed enforcers establish themselves to replace the oligarchs who’ve just been removed.

What you actually want is something like capitalism, but with a mechanism in place to prevent runaway idiocy of the sort we have now. People have tried to do that with progressive taxation, of course, but the institutions we might look to to effect that change have already been gamed via the current process of stupidification. That means we can expect those institutions to be remarkably sluggish in their response to our votes, and to draft legislation that is more arcane and full of holes than anyone wants. Look at the legislation imposed on banks after the Credit Crunch if you want an example of how that is likely to play out.

To my mind, the fix has to be something simple, blunt, and obvious, so that there is no wiggle-room for laws to be altered and cheated. We want a law you can can fit in a tweet, because that way it’s easy to apply a social check on whether it’s actually being carried out properly. And because the process exclusively impacts a tiny, overfed, and badly-confused minority, violence in its exercise might actually be avoided.

It wouldn’t work forever, of course, but it might buy us enough time to get rational about the world we live on, and how to keep it from burning up. And that would be a lot better than what we have now.

How do we implement such a change? That’s harder. It requires coordination and persistent agitation, and is undoubtedly the topic for another blog post.

In any case, that’s my take. If you disagree, or believe you have a better solution, I’d love to hear about it. I shall be reading the comments with interest.

 

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What are leaders?

We talk about them. We work for them. We aspire to be one of them. Occasionally, we elect them. But seldom do we ask what leaders actually are. After all, animals don’t have leaders. So far as I know, there are no examples of ‘leadership’ anywhere in the animal kingdom outside of the human race.

Does that statement seem hard to swallow? Let’s think over the facts. Gorillas, for instance, don’t they have leaders? They have silverbacks, after all. Nope. They have dominant males. Those males don’t shape the feeding strategy or direction for the group. They just exercise sexual dominance. The decision makers in group behavior tend to be those individuals with the greatest need. Eg: pregnant females or females with young. The same goes for wolves, lions, naked mole rats, you name it. There are loads of examples of sexual dominance, but dominance is uncoupled from group decision making.

Okay, you may say, but consider bees and ants. They have queens that produce all the offspring in the hive. They produce pheromones that mediate a huge amount of hive behavior. Surely, in this case, we have some animals we can point to that exhibit leadership. The answer is still no. And, in this case, Richard Dawkins makes an important point about this in his 1990 book, The Selfish Gene. Namely, that it’s at least as legitimate to think of the workers exploiting the queen as it is to think of the queen leading the workers.

While there is still much discussion about exactly how hive cooperation arises, in the case of bees and ants it’s undeniable that the workers in a hive are more related to each other than they are to any offspring that are produced. Therefore, it’s in many ways the most logical approach to consider the workers as a group that’s using the queen to perpetuate a colony of sisters.

Having no other examples of leadership for nature is unsettling. It leaves us with the horrible challenge of explaining how the invention of leadership has sprung out of nothing in the last few million years.

But wait a minute. If examples of leadership seem so rare in nature, maybe we’re not thinking about leadership the right way. Maybe we’re so used to thinking of leaders through the lens of human interpretation that we’re missing the parallels with other natural systems. What happens if, instead, we turn our model of leadership about? Say, for example, if we look at the example of the queen bee, and see what other, perhaps hidden, parallels actually exist?

To my mind, the answers to this question are striking, and they’ve transformed my recent thinking about business and politics. To explain what I mean, let’s take a human example that hopefully makes the connection clear: Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Queen Elizabeth occupies what is generally considered to be a powerful leadership position. Heads of state defer to her. Crowds come out to support her. She comes with top billing in governments and religious organizations world over. But what does she actually control? How many decisions that she makes actually affect anyone besides her own family? Arguably, none. Furthermore, Elizabeth has a busy schedule that’s administered by her handlers. She has international appointment bookings that stretch for years, none of which she personally chose. In many ways, our human queen looks rather like a bee.

So why do we call her a leader? The answer is, of course, historical. She’s the descendent of prior rulers who were actually exercising power. And as that power was whittled away and replaced with a democratic system, her symbolic role was retained. That, at least, is the popular answer, and it’s basically useless.

It’s useless because it doesn’t tell us why her symbolic role was retained. If leadership is about exercising control, as we generally assume, why wasn’t the monarchy dumped the moment it became irrelevant? The popular riposte is to say ‘because people liked the monarchy and wanted it to persist’. But this isn’t a good answer either. Why did people want the monarchy to persist. Why do people still want her there now?

I propose that the reason why the queen exists, and the reason why all leaders exist, is precisely because human beings are a lot like bees. We create leaders to exploit.

What I mean by this is that human beings select individuals to fulfill specific social roles. We make room in society for those roles, and we clad those roles in ideas that ensure that we never look too closely at what they truly entail. Why do we do this? We do it to make cooperative behavior more robust.

Cooperation is a tricky business. Anyone who’s spent a few years studying game theory will tell you that. A society of individuals who cooperate with each other is always at risk of being subverted by individuals who cheat, unless they have some strategy for punishing cheaters.

In the case of humans, this problem is even more pronounced. Because we have language, gossip, tool use, and planning, the number of ways to cheat is uncountable, and the number of ways for humans to punish each other is broad and ghastly. In order to survive, human beings have evolved a natural tendency to cooperate automatically, which only ever starts to switch off when conscious thought is brought into play.

In order to mitigate the risk of instinctive cooperation, I propose that humans have evolved social structure that allow us to borrow cheating from others.

Consider two populations. In one, let’s call it Population A, people cooperate automatically, except when they discover someone who is aggressively out for themselves at the cost of others. Let’s call these people ‘defectors’.

In the other group, Population B, people still cooperate automatically. However, when they encounter a defector, they call that person a ‘leader’. They cooperate with that person while still cooperating with each other. They relinquish control of some fraction of the social order to the defector and let them do what they want.

How effective is Population B? That depends on how good their defector is. If their defector is crappy and has no imagination, then Population B suffers. However, if the defector has ambition, Population B finds itself charging over the hill to burn Population A’s village and claim all their food. In this case, Population B wins big-time, even though most of the people in that group are still behaving cooperatively with each other all the time.

There’s a catch here, though. In order to make this work, the people in Population B have to find a way to suspend their sense of fair play while doing or watching some of the shitty things that their defector has recommended. If they don’t, they’re going to have trouble holding onto their identity as cooperators.

So, to make the strategy work, the people in Population B have to be constantly evaluating possible ‘leaders’ from among any defectors who arise. Those who don’t make the cut are drowned in the village well as liars and cheats. Those who do are promoted and eulogized. We tell ourselves that their control over society is inevitable because ‘they’re the ones with the power’, and that their aggressive exercise of will illustrates ‘vision and direction’.

This, I’d say, explains why we have trouble understanding leadership or finding it in other species. We’re looking for what we want leadership to be, not what it is. In truth, we own our leaders. We make them happen. We take individuals whose capacity for cooperation is damaged, and we use them as tools for social advantage.

To my mind, this is an important point to be sharing with the world right now. That’s because the leaders we’ve chosen haven’t done a very good job, by and large, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, the austerity disaster in Europe, worldwide banking scandals, etc.

It’s important for us to remember that our leaders exist because we let them. Their power is, and always has been, exercised by us, because it’s less risky than cheating ourselves. At any time, we can take those leaders and replace them with others we think will do a better job. That’s how society works.

That idea is easy to absorb when it comes to elected officials, but it is at least as true for every banker on Wall St. That’s because wealth is just another form of legitimized defection. Hence, if we don’t like how they’re going about things, we should swap them out. After all, they, just like the queen, belong to us.