Behavioral Economics

Lab Flies: Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes and the Contamination of Walter White

Walter White’s Moral Math

In an episode near the end of Breaking Bad’s fourth season, the drug kingpin Gus Fring gives his meth cook Walter White an ultimatum. Walt’s brother-in-law Hank is a DEA agent who has been getting close to discovering the high-tech lab Gus has created for Walt and his partner Jesse, and Walt, despite his best efforts, hasn’t managed to put him off the trail. Gus decides that Walt himself has likewise become too big a liability, and he has found that Jesse can cook almost as well as his mentor. The only problem for Gus is that Jesse, even though he too is fed up with Walt, will refuse to cook if anything happens to his old partner. So Gus has Walt taken at gunpoint to the desert where he tells him to stay away from both the lab and Jesse. Walt, infuriated, goads Gus with the fact that he’s failed to turn Jesse against him completely, to which Gus responds, “For now,” before going on to say,

In the meantime, there’s the matter of your brother-in-law. He is a problem you promised to resolve. You have failed. Now it’s left to me to deal with him. If you try to interfere, this becomes a much simpler matter. I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.

In other words, Gus tells Walt to stand by and let Hank be killed or else he will kill his wife and kids. Once he’s released, Walt immediately has his lawyer Saul Goodman place an anonymous call to the DEA to warn them that Hank is in danger. Afterward, Walt plans to pay a man to help his family escape to a new location with new, untraceable identities—but he soon discovers the money he was going to use to pay the man has already been spent (by his wife Skyler). Now it seems all five of them are doomed. This is when things get really interesting.

            Walt devises an elaborate plan to convince Jesse to help him kill Gus. Jesse knows that Gus would prefer for Walt to be dead, and both Walt and Gus know that Jesse would go berserk if anyone ever tried to hurt his girlfriend’s nine-year-old son Brock. Walt’s plan is to make it look like Gus is trying to frame him for poisoning Brock with risin. The idea is that Jesse would suspect Walt of trying to kill Brock as punishment for Jesse betraying him and going to work with Gus. But Walt will convince Jesse that this is really just Gus’s ploy to trick Jesse into doing what he has forbidden Gus to do up till now—and kill Walt himself. Once Jesse concludes that it was Gus who poisoned Brock, he will understand that his new boss has to go, and he will accept Walt’s offer to help him perform the deed. Walt will then be able to get Jesse to give him the crucial information he needs about Gus to figure out a way to kill him.

It’s a brilliant plan. The one problem is that it involves poisoning a nine-year-old child. Walt comes up with an ingenious trick which allows him to use a less deadly poison while still making it look like Brock has ingested the ricin, but for the plan to work the boy has to be made deathly ill. So Walt is faced with a dilemma: if he goes through with his plan, he can save Hank, his wife, and his two kids, but to do so he has to deceive his old partner Jesse in just about the most underhanded way imaginable—and he has to make a young boy very sick by poisoning him, with the attendant risk that something will go wrong and the boy, or someone else, or everyone else, will die anyway. The math seems easy: either four people die, or one person gets sick. The option recommended by the math is greatly complicated, however, by the fact that it involves an act of violence against an innocent child.

In the end, Walt chooses to go through with his plan, and it works perfectly. In another ingenious move, though, this time on the part of the show’s writers, Walt’s deception isn’t revealed until after his plan has been successfully implemented, which makes for an unforgettable shock at the end of the season. Unfortunately, this revelation after the fact, at a time when Walt and his family are finally safe, makes it all too easy to forget what made the dilemma so difficult in the first place—and thus makes it all too easy to condemn Walt for resorting to such monstrous means to see his way through.

Joshua Greene
            Fans of Breaking Bad who read about the famous thought-experiment called the footbridge dilemma in Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene’s multidisciplinary and momentously important book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them will immediately recognize the conflicting feelings underlying our responses to questions about serving some greater good by committing an act of violence. Here is how Greene describes the dilemma:

A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big enough to stop the trolley, and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death? (113-4)

As was the case for Walter White when he faced his child-poisoning dilemma, the math is easy: you can save five people—strangers in this case—through a single act of violence. One of the fascinating things about common responses to the footbridge dilemma, though, is that the math is all but irrelevant to most of us; no matter how many people we might save, it’s hard for us to see past the murderous deed of pushing the man off the bridge. The answer for a large majority of people faced with this dilemma, even in the case of variations which put the number of people who would be saved much higher than five, is no, pushing the stranger to his death is not morally acceptable.

Another fascinating aspect of our responses is that they change drastically with the modification of a single detail in the hypothetical scenario. In the switch dilemma, a trolley is heading for five people again, but this time you can hit a switch to shift it onto another track where there happens to be a single person who would be killed. Though the math and the underlying logic are the same—you save five people by killing one—something about pushing a person off a bridge strikes us as far worse than pulling a switch. A large majority of people say killing the one person in the switch dilemma is acceptable. To figure out which specific factors account for the different responses, Greene and his colleagues tweak various minor details of the trolley scenario before posing the dilemma to test participants. By now, so many experiments have relied on these scenarios that Greene calls trolley dilemmas the fruit flies of the emerging field known as moral psychology.

The Automatic and Manual Modes of Moral Thinking

One hypothesis for why the footbridge case strikes us as unacceptable is that it involves using a human being as an instrument, a means to an end. So Greene and his fellow trolleyologists devised a variation called the loop dilemma, which still has participants pulling a hypothetical switch, but this time the lone victim on the alternate track must stop the trolley from looping back around onto the original track. In other words, you’re still hitting the switch to save the five people, but you’re also using a human being as a trolley stop. People nonetheless tend to respond to the loop dilemma in much the same way they do the switch dilemma. So there must be some factor other than the prospect of using a person as an instrument that makes the footbridge version so objectionable to us.

Greene’s own theory for why our intuitive responses to these dilemmas are so different begins with what Daniel Kahneman, one of the founders of behavioral economics, labeled the two-system model of the mind. The first system, a sort of autopilot, is the one we operate in most of the time. We only use the second system when doing things that require conscious effort, like multiplying 26 by 47. While system one is quick and intuitive, system two is slow and demanding. Greene proposes as an analogy the automatic and manual settings on a camera. System one is point-and-click; system two, though more flexible, requires several calibrations and adjustments. We usually only engage our manual systems when faced with circumstances that are either completely new or particularly challenging.

Tomkow.com
According to Greene’s model, our automatic settings have functions that go beyond the rapid processing of information to encompass our basic set of moral emotions, from indignation to gratitude, from guilt to outrage, which motivates us to behave in ways that over evolutionary history have helped our ancestors transcend their selfish impulses to live in cooperative societies. Greene writes,

According to the dual-process theory, there is an automatic setting that sounds the emotional alarm in response to certain kinds of harmful actions, such as the action in the footbridge case. Then there’s manual mode, which by its nature tends to think in terms of costs and benefits. Manual mode looks at all of these cases—switch, footbridge, and loop—and says “Five for one? Sounds like a good deal.” Because manual mode always reaches the same conclusion in these five-for-one cases (“Good deal!”), the trend in judgment for each of these cases is ultimately determined by the automatic setting—that is, by whether the myopic module sounds the alarm. (233)

What makes the dilemmas difficult then is that we experience them in two conflicting ways. Most of us, most of the time, follow the dictates of the automatic setting, which Greene describes as myopic because its speed and efficiency come at the cost of inflexibility and limited scope for extenuating considerations.

The reason our intuitive settings sound an alarm at the thought of pushing a man off a bridge but remain silent about hitting a switch, Greene suggests, is that our ancestors evolved to live in cooperative groups where some means of preventing violence between members had to be in place to avoid dissolution—or outright implosion. One of the dangers of living with a bunch of upright-walking apes who possess the gift of foresight is that any one of them could at any time be plotting revenge for some seemingly minor slight, or conspiring to get you killed so he can move in on your spouse or inherit your belongings. For a group composed of individuals with the capacity to hold grudges and calculate future gains to function cohesively, the members must have in place some mechanism that affords a modicum of assurance that no one will murder them in their sleep. Greene writes,

To keep one’s violent behavior in check, it would help to have some kind of internal monitor, an alarm system that says “Don’t do that!” when one is contemplating an act of violence. Such an action-plan inspector would not necessarily object to all forms of violence. It might shut down, for example, when it’s time to defend oneself or attack one’s enemies. But it would, in general, make individuals very reluctant to physically harm one another, thus protecting individuals from retaliation and, perhaps, supporting cooperation at the group level. My hypothesis is that the myopic module is precisely this action-plan inspecting system, a device for keeping us from being casually violent. (226)

Hitting a switch to transfer a train from one track to another seems acceptable, even though a person ends up being killed, because nothing our ancestors would have recognized as violence is involved.

Many philosophers cite our different responses to the various trolley dilemmas as support for deontological systems of morality—those based on the inherent rightness or wrongness of certain actions—since we intuitively know the choices suggested by a consequentialist approach are immoral. But Greene points out that this argument begs the question of how reliable our intuitions really are. He writes,

I’ve called the footbridge dilemma a moral fruit fly, and that analogy is doubly appropriate because, if I’m right, this dilemma is also a moral pest. It’s a highly contrived situation in which a prototypically violent action is guaranteed (by stipulation) to promote the greater good. The lesson that philosophers have, for the most part, drawn from this dilemma is that it’s sometimes deeply wrong to promote the greater good. However, our understanding of the dual-process moral brain suggests a different lesson: Our moral intuitions are generally sensible, but not infallible. As a result, it’s all but guaranteed that we can dream up examples that exploit the cognitive inflexibility of our moral intuitions. It’s all but guaranteed that we can dream up a hypothetical action that is actually good but that seems terribly, horribly wrong because it pushes our moral buttons. I know of no better candidate for this honor than the footbridge dilemma. (251)

The obverse is that many of the things that seem morally acceptable to us actually do cause harm to people. Greene cites the example of a man who lets a child drown because he doesn’t want to ruin his expensive shoes, which most people agree is monstrous, even though we think nothing of spending money on things we don’t really need when we could be sending that money to save sick or starving children in some distant country. Then there are crimes against the environment, which always seem to rank low on our list of priorities even though their future impact on real human lives could be devastating. We have our justifications for such actions or omissions, to be sure, but how valid are they really? Is distance really a morally relevant factor when we let children die? Does the diffusion of responsibility among so many millions change the fact that we personally could have a measurable impact?

These black marks notwithstanding, cooperation, and even a certain degree of altruism, come natural to us. To demonstrate this, Greene and his colleagues have devised some clever methods for separating test subjects’ intuitive responses from their more deliberate and effortful decisions. The experiments begin with a multi-participant exchange scenario developed by economic game theorists called the Public Goods Game, which has a number of anonymous players contribute to a common bank whose sum is then doubled and distributed evenly among them. Like the more famous game theory exchange known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the outcomes of the Public Goods Game reward cooperation, but only when a threshold number of fellow cooperators is reached. The flip side, however, is that any individual who decides to be stingy can get a free ride from everyone else’s contributions and make an even greater profit. What tends to happen is, over multiple rounds, the number of players opting for stinginess increases until the game is ruined for everyone, a process analogical to a phenomenon in economics known as the Tragedy of the Commons. Everyone wants to graze a few more sheep on the commons than can be sustained fairly, so eventually the grounds are left barren.

The Biological and Cultural Evolution of Morality

            Greene believes that humans evolved emotional mechanisms to prevent the various analogs of the Tragedy of the Commons from occurring so that we can live together harmoniously in tight-knit groups. The outcomes of multiple rounds of the Public Goods Game, for instance, tend to be far less dismal when players are given the opportunity to devote a portion of their own profits to punishing free riders. Most humans, it turns out, will be motivated by the emotion of anger to expend their own resources for the sake of enforcing fairness. Over several rounds, cooperation becomes the norm. Such an outcome has been replicated again and again, but researchers are always interested in factors that influence players’ strategies in the early rounds. Greene describes a series of experiments he conducted with David Rand and Martin Nowak, which were reported in an article in Nature in 2012. He writes,

…we conducted our own Public Goods Games, in which we forced some people to decide quickly (less than ten seconds) and forced others to decide slowly (more than ten seconds). As predicted, forcing people to decide faster made them more cooperative and forcing people to slow down made them less cooperative (more likely to free ride). In other experiments, we asked people, before playing the Public Goods Game, to write about a time in which their intuitions served them well, or about a time in which careful reasoning led them astray. Reflecting on the advantages of intuitive thinking (or the disadvantages of careful reflection) made people more cooperative. Likewise, reflecting on the advantages of careful reasoning (or the disadvantages of intuitive thinking) made people less cooperative. (62)

These results offer strong support for Greene’s dual-process theory of morality, and they even hint at the possibility that the manual mode is fundamentally selfish or amoral—in other words, that the philosophers have been right all along in deferring to human intuitions about right and wrong.

            As good as our intuitive moral sense is for preventing the Tragedy of the Commons, however, when given free rein in a society comprised of large groups of people who are strangers to one another, each with its own culture and priorities, our natural moral settings bring about an altogether different tragedy. Greene labels it the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality. He explains,

Morality evolved to enable cooperation, but this conclusion comes with an important caveat. Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups). (23)

Expanding on the story behind the Tragedy of the Commons, Greene describes what would happen if several groups, each having developed its own unique solution for making sure the commons were protected from overgrazing, were suddenly to come into contact with one another on a transformed landscape called the New Pastures. Each group would likely harbor suspicions against the others, and when it came time to negotiate a new set of rules to govern everybody the groups would all show a significant, though largely unconscious, bias in favor of their own members and their own ways.

            The origins of moral psychology as a field can be traced to both developmental and evolutionary psychology. Seminal research conducted at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, led by Karen Wynn, Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom (and which Bloom describes in a charming and highly accessible book called Just Babies), has demonstrated that children as young as six months possess what we can easily recognize as a rudimentary moral sense. These findings suggest that much of the behavior we might have previously ascribed to lessons learned from adults is actually innate. Experiments based on game theory scenarios and thought-experiments like the trolley dilemmas are likewise thought to tap into evolved patterns of human behavior. Yet when University of British Columbia psychologist Joseph Henrich teamed up with several anthropologists to see how people living in various small-scale societies responded to game theory scenarios like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Public Goods Game they discovered a great deal of variation. On the one hand, then, human moral intuitions seem to be rooted in emotional responses present at, or at least close to, birth, but on the other hand cultures vary widely in their conventional responses to classic dilemmas. These differences between cultural conceptions of right and wrong are in large part responsible for the conflict Greene envisions in his Parable of the New Pastures.
Joseph Henrich

But how can a moral sense be both innate and culturally variable?  “As you might expect,” Greene explains, “the way people play these games reflects the way they live.” People in some cultures rely much more heavily on cooperation to procure their sustenance, as is the case with the Lamelara of Indonesia, who live off the meat of whales they hunt in groups. Cultures also vary in how much they rely on market economies as opposed to less abstract and less formal modes of exchange. Just as people adjust the way they play economic games in response to other players’ moves, people acquire habits of cooperation based on the circumstances they face in their particular societies. Regarding the differences between small-scale societies in common game theory strategies, Greene writes,

Henrich and colleagues found that payoffs to cooperation and market integration explain more than two thirds of the variation across these cultures. A more recent study shows that, across societies, market integration is an excellent predictor of altruism in the Dictator Game. At the same time, many factors that you might expect to be important predictors of cooperative behavior—things like an individual’s sex, age, and relative wealth, or the amount of money at stake—have little predictive power. (72)

In much the same way humans are programmed to learn a language and acquire a set of religious beliefs, they also come into the world with a suite of emotional mechanisms that make up the raw material for what will become a culturally calibrated set of moral intuitions. The specific language and religion we end up with is of course dependent on the social context of our upbringing, just as our specific moral settings will reflect those of other people in the societies we grow up in.

Jonathan Haidt and Tribal Righteousness

Jonathan Haidt
In our modern industrial society, we actually have some degree of choice when it comes to our cultural affiliations, and this freedom opens the way for heritable differences between individuals to play a larger role in our moral development. Such differences are nowhere as apparent as in the realm of politics, where nearly all citizens occupy some point on a continuum between conservative and liberal. According to Greene’s fellow moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we have precious little control over our moral responses because, in his view, reason only comes into play to justify actions and judgments we’ve already made. In his fascinating 2012 book The Righteous Mind, Haidt insists,

Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. That’s why I say that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” You’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth. (50)

To explain the moral divide between right and left, Haidt points to the findings of his own research on what he calls Moral Foundations, six dimensions underlying our intuitions about moral and immoral actions. Conservatives tend to endorse judgments based on all six of the foundations, valuing loyalty, authority, and sanctity much more than liberals, who focus more exclusively on care for the disadvantaged, fairness, and freedom from oppression. Since our politics emerge from our moral intuitions and reason merely serves as a sort of PR agent to rationalize judgments after the fact, Haidt enjoins us to be more accepting of rival political groups— after all, you can’t reason with them. 

            Greene objects both to Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory and to his prescription for a politics of complementarity. The responses to questions representing all the moral dimensions in Haidt’s studies form two clusters on a graph, Greene points out, not six, suggesting that the differences between conservatives and liberals are attributable to some single overarching variable as opposed to several individual tendencies. Furthermore, the specific content of the questions Haidt uses to flesh out the values of his respondents have a critical limitation. Greene writes,

According to Haidt, American social conservatives place greater value on respect for authority, and that’s true in a sense. Social conservatives feel less comfortable slapping their fathers, even as a joke, and so on. But social conservatives do not respect authority in a general way. Rather, they have great respect for authorities recognized by their tribe (from the Christian God to various religious and political leaders to parents). American social conservatives are not especially respectful of Barack Hussein Obama, whose status as a native-born American, and thus a legitimate president, they have persistently challenged. (339)

The same limitation applies to the loyalty and sanctity foundations. Conservatives feel little loyalty toward the atheists and Muslims among their fellow Americans. Nor do they recognize the sanctity of Mosques or Hindu holy texts. Greene goes on,

American social conservatives are not best described as people who place special value on authority, sanctity, and loyalty, but rather as tribal loyalists—loyal to their own authorities, their own religion, and themselves. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them parochial, tribal. In this they’re akin to the world’s other socially conservative tribes, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to European nationalists. According to Haidt, liberals should be more open to compromise with social conservatives. I disagree. In the short term, compromise may be necessary, but in the long term, our strategy should not be to compromise with tribal moralists, but rather to persuade them to be less tribalistic. (340)

Greene believes such persuasion is possible, even with regard to emotionally and morally charged controversies, because he sees our manual-mode thinking as playing a potentially much greater role than Haidt sees it playing.

Metamorality on the New Pastures

            Throughout The Righteous Mind, Haidt argues that the moral philosophers who laid the foundations of modern liberal and academic conceptions of right and wrong gave short shrift to emotions and intuitions—that they gave far too much credit to our capacity for reason. To be fair, Haidt does honor the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive theories of morality, but he nonetheless gives the impression that he considers liberal morality to be somewhat impoverished. Greene sees this attitude as thoroughly wrongheaded. Responding to Haidt’s metaphor comparing his Moral Foundations to taste buds—with the implication that the liberal palate is more limited in the range of flavors it can appreciate—Greene writes,

The great philosophers of the Enlightenment wrote at a time when the world was rapidly shrinking, forcing them to wonder whether their own laws, their own traditions, and their own God(s) were any better than anyone else’s. They wrote at a time when technology (e.g., ships) and consequent economic productivity (e.g., global trade) put wealth and power into the hands of a rising educated class, with incentives to question the traditional authorities of king and church. Finally, at this time, natural science was making the world comprehensible in secular terms, revealing universal natural laws and overturning ancient religious doctrines. Philosophers wondered whether there might also be universal moral laws, ones that, like Newton’s law of gravitation, applied to members of all tribes, whether or not they knew it. Thus, the Enlightenment philosophers were not arbitrarily shedding moral taste buds. They were looking for deeper, universal moral truths, and for good reason. They were looking for moral truths beyond the teachings of any particular religion and beyond the will of any earthly king. They were looking for what I’ve called a metamorality: a pan-tribal, or post-tribal, philosophy to govern life on the new pastures. (338-9)

While Haidt insists we must recognize the centrality of intuitions even in this civilization nominally ruled by reason, Greene points out that it was skepticism of old, seemingly unassailable and intuitive truths that opened up the world and made modern industrial civilization possible in the first place.  

            As Haidt explains, though, conservative morality serves people well in certain regards. Christian churches, for instance, encourage charity and foster a sense of community few secular institutions can match. But these advantages at the level of parochial groups have to be weighed against the problems tribalism inevitably leads to at higher levels. This is, in fact, precisely the point Greene created his Parable of the New Pastures to make. He writes,

The Tragedy of the Commons is averted by a suite of automatic settings—moral emotions that motivate and stabilize cooperation within limited groups. But the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality arises because of automatic settings, because different tribes have different automatic settings, causing them to see the world through different moral lenses. The Tragedy of the Commons is a tragedy of selfishness, but the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility. There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives. How should they think? The answer is now obvious: They should shift into manual mode. (172)

Greene argues that whenever we, as a society, are faced with a moral controversy—as with issues like abortion, capital punishment, and tax policy—our intuitions will not suffice because our intuitions are the very basis of our disagreement.

Emily Nussbaum
            Watching the conclusion to season four of Breaking Bad, most viewers probably responded to finding out that Walt had poisoned Brock by thinking that he’d become a monster—at least at first. Indeed, the currently dominant academic approach to art criticism involves taking a stance, both moral and political, with regard to a work’s models and messages. Writing for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum, for instance, disparages viewers of Breaking Bad for failing to condemn Walt, writing,

When Brock was near death in the I.C.U., I spent hours arguing with friends about who was responsible. To my surprise, some of the most hard-nosed cynics thought it inconceivable that it could be Walt—that might make the show impossible to take, they said. But, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Once the truth came out, and Brock recovered, I read posts insisting that Walt was so discerning, so careful with the dosage, that Brock could never have died. The audience has been trained by cable television to react this way: to hate the nagging wives, the dumb civilians, who might sour the fun of masculine adventure. “Breaking Bad” increases that cognitive dissonance, turning some viewers into not merely fans but enablers. (83)

To arrive at such an assessment, Nussbaum must reduce the show to the impact she assumes it will have on less sophisticated fans’ attitudes and judgments. But the really troubling aspect of this type of criticism is that it encourages scholars and critics to indulge their impulse toward self-righteousness when faced with challenging moral dilemmas; in other words, it encourages them to give voice to their automatic modes precisely when they should be shifting to manual mode. Thus, Nussbaum neglects outright the very details that make Walt’s scenario compelling, completely forgetting that by making Brock sick—and, yes, risking his life—he was able to save Hank, Skyler, and his own two children.

But how should we go about arriving at a resolution to moral dilemmas and political controversies if we agree we can’t always trust our intuitions? Greene believes that, while our automatic modes recognize certain acts as wrong and certain others as a matter of duty to perform, in keeping with deontological ethics, whenever we switch to manual mode, the focus shifts to weighing the relative desirability of each option's outcomes. In other words, manual mode thinking is consequentialist. And, since we tend to assess outcomes according their impact on other people, favoring those that improve the quality of their experiences the most, or detract from it the least, Greene argues that whenever we slow down and think through moral dilemmas deliberately we become utilitarians. He writes,

If I’m right, this convergence between what seems like the right moral philosophy (from a certain perspective) and what seems like the right moral psychology (from a certain perspective) is no accident. If I’m right, Bentham and Mill did something fundamentally different from all of their predecessors, both philosophically and psychologically. They transcended the limitations of commonsense morality by turning the problem of morality (almost) entirely over to manual mode. They put aside their inflexible automatic settings and instead asked two very abstract questions. First: What really matters? Second: What is the essence of morality? They concluded that experience is what ultimately matters, and that impartiality is the essence of morality. Combing these two ideas, we get utilitarianism: We should maximize the quality of our experience, giving equal weight to the experience of each person. (173)

If you cite an authority recognized only by your own tribe—say, the Bible—in support of a moral argument, then members of other tribes will either simply discount your position or counter it with pronouncements by their own authorities. If, on the other hand, you argue for a law or a policy by citing evidence that implementing it would mean longer, healthier, happier lives for the citizens it affects, then only those seeking to establish the dominion of their own tribe can discount your position (which of course isn’t to say they can’t offer rival interpretations of your evidence).

            If we turn commonsense morality on its head and evaluate the consequences of giving our intuitions priority over utilitarian accounting, we can find countless circumstances in which being overly moral is to everyone’s detriment. Ideas of justice and fairness allow far too much space for selfish and tribal biases, whereas the math behind mutually optimal outcomes based on compromise tends to be harder to fudge. Greene reports, for instance, the findings of a series of experiments conducted by Fieke Harinick and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in 2000. Negotiations by lawyers representing either the prosecution or the defense were told to either focus on serving justice or on getting the best outcome for their clients. The negotiations in the first condition almost always came to loggerheads. Greene explains,

Thus, two selfish and rational negotiators who see that their positions are symmetrical will be willing to enlarge the pie, and then split the pie evenly. However, if negotiators are seeking justice, rather than merely looking out for their bottom lines, then other, more ambiguous, considerations come into play, and with them the opportunity for biased fairness. Maybe your clients really deserve lighter penalties. Or maybe the defendants you’re prosecuting really deserve stiffer penalties. There is a range of plausible views about what’s truly fair in these cases, and you can choose among them to suit your interests. By contrast, if it’s just a matter of getting the best deal you can from someone who’s just trying to get the best deal for himself, there’s a lot less wiggle room, and a lot less opportunity for biased fairness to create an impasse. (88)

Framing an argument as an effort to establish who was right and who was wrong is like drawing a line in the sand—it activates tribal attitudes pitting us against them, while treating negotiations more like an economic exchange circumvents these tribal biases.

Challenges to Utilitarianism

But do we really want to suppress our automatic moral reactions in favor of deliberative accountings of the greatest good for the greatest number? Deontologists have posed some effective challenges to utilitarianism in the form of thought-experiments that seem to show efforts to improve the quality of experiences would lead to atrocities. For instance, Greene recounts how in a high school debate, he was confronted by a hypothetical surgeon who could save five sick people by killing one healthy one. Then there’s the so-called Utility Monster, who experiences such happiness when eating humans that it quantitatively outweighs the suffering of those being eaten. More down-to-earth examples feature a scapegoat convicted of a crime to prevent rioting by people who are angry about police ineptitude, and the use of torture to extract information from a prisoner that could prevent a terrorist attack. The most influential challenge to utilitarianism, however, was leveled by the political philosopher John Rawls when he pointed out that it could be used to justify the enslavement of a minority by a majority.

Greene’s responses to these criticisms make up one of the most surprising, important, and fascinating parts of Moral Tribes. First, highly contrived thought-experiments about Utility Monsters and circumstances in which pushing a guy off a bridge is guaranteed to stop a trolley may indeed prove that utilitarianism is not true in any absolute sense. But whether or not such moral absolutes even exist is a contentious issue in its own right. Greene explains,

I am not claiming that utilitarianism is the absolute moral truth. Instead I’m claiming that it’s a good metamorality, a good standard for resolving moral disagreements in the real world. As long as utilitarianism doesn’t endorse things like slavery in the real world, that’s good enough. (275-6)

One source of confusion regarding the slavery issue is the equation of happiness with money; slave owners probably could make profits in excess of the losses sustained by the slaves. But money is often a poor index of happiness. Greene underscores this point by asking us to consider how much someone would have to pay us to sell ourselves into slavery. “In the real world,” he writes, “oppression offers only modest gains in happiness to the oppressors while heaping misery upon the oppressed” (284-5).

            Another failing of the thought-experiments thought to undermine utilitarianism is the shortsightedness of the supposedly obvious responses. The crimes of the murderous doctor and the scapegoating law officers may indeed produce short-term increases in happiness, but if the secret gets out healthy and innocent people will live in fear, knowing they can’t trust doctors and law officers. The same logic applies to the objection that utilitarianism would force us to become infinitely charitable, since we can almost always afford to be more generous than we currently are. But how long could we serve as so-called happiness pumps before burning out, becoming miserable, and thus lose the capacity for making anyone else happier? Greene writes,

If what utilitarianism asks of you seems absurd, then it’s not what utilitarianism actually asks of you. Utilitarianism is, once again, an inherently practical philosophy, and there’s nothing more impractical than commanding free people to do things that strike them as absurd and that run counter to their most basic motivations. Thus, in the real world, utilitarianism is demanding, but not overly demanding. It can accommodate our basic human needs and motivations, but it nonetheless calls for substantial reform of our selfish habits. (258)

Greene seems to be endorsing what philosophers call "rule utilitarianism." We can approach every choice by calculating the likely outcomes, but as a society we would be better served deciding on some rules for everyone to adhere to. It just may be possible for a doctor to increase happiness through murder in a particular set of circumstances—but most people would vociferously object to a rule legitimizing the practice.

            The concept of human rights may present another challenge to Greene in his championing of consequentialism over deontology. It is our duty, after all, to recognize the rights of every human, and we ourselves have no right to disregard someone else’s rights no matter what benefit we believe might result from doing so. In his book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker, Greene’s colleague at Harvard, attributes much of the steep decline in rates of violent death over the past three centuries to a series of what he calls Rights Revolutions, the first of which began during the Enlightenment. But the problem with arguments that refer to rights, Greene explains, is that controversies arise for the very reason that people don’t agree which rights we should recognize. He writes,

Thus, appeals to “rights” function as an intellectual free pass, a trump card that renders evidence irrelevant. Whatever you and your fellow tribespeople feel, you can always posit the existence of a right that corresponds to your feelings. If you feel that abortion is wrong, you can talk about a “right to life.” If you feel that outlawing abortion is wrong, you can talk about a “right to choose.” If you’re Iran, you can talk about your “nuclear rights,” and if you’re Israel you can talk about your “right to self-defense.” “Rights” are nothing short of brilliant. They allow us to rationalize our gut feelings without doing any additional work. (302)

The only way to resolve controversies over which rights we should actually recognize and which rights we should prioritize over others, Greene argues, is to apply utilitarian reasoning.

Ideology and Epistemology

            In his discussion of the proper use of the language of rights, Greene comes closer than in other section of Moral Tribes to explicitly articulating what strikes me as the most revolutionary idea that he and his fellow moral psychologists are suggesting—albeit as of yet only implicitly. In his advocacy for what he calls “deep pragmatism,” Greene isn’t merely applying evolutionary theories to an old philosophical debate; he’s actually posing a subtly different question. The numerous thought-experiments philosophers use to poke holes in utilitarianism may not have much relevance in the real world—but they do undermine any claim utilitarianism may have on absolute moral truth. Greene’s approach is therefore to eschew any effort to arrive at absolute truths, including truths pertaining to rights. Instead, in much the same way scientists accept that our knowledge of the natural world is mediated by theories, which only approach the truth asymptotically, never capturing it with any finality, Greene intimates that the important task in the realm of moral philosophy isn’t to arrive at a full accounting of moral truths but rather to establish a process for resolving moral and political dilemmas.

What’s needed, in other words, isn’t a rock solid moral ideology but a workable moral epistemology. And, just as empiricism serves as the foundation of the epistemology of science, Greene makes a convincing case that we could use utilitarianism as the basis of an epistemology of morality. Pursuing the analogy between scientific and moral epistemologies even farther, we can compare theories, which stand or fall according to their empirical support, to individual human rights, which we afford and affirm according to their impact on the collective happiness of every individual in the society. Greene writes,

If we are truly interested in persuading our opponents with reason, then we should eschew the language of rights. This is, once again, because we have no non-question-begging (and utilitarian) way of figuring out which rights really exist and which rights take precedence over others. But when it’s not worth arguing—either because the question has been settled or because our opponents can’t be reasoned with—then it’s time to start rallying the troops. It’s time to affirm our moral commitments, not with wonky estimates of probabilities but with words that stir our souls. (308-9)

Rights may be the closest thing we have to moral truths, just as theories serve as our stand-ins for truths about the natural world, but even more important than rights or theories are the processes we rely on to establish and revise them.

A New Theory of Narrative

            As if a philosophical revolution weren’t enough, moral psychology is also putting in place what could be the foundation of a new understanding of the role of narratives in human lives. At the heart of every story is a conflict between competing moral ideals. In commercial fiction, there tends to be a character representing each side of the conflict, and audiences can be counted on to favor one side over the other—the good, altruistic guys over the bad, selfish guys. In more literary fiction, on the other hand, individual characters are faced with dilemmas pitting various modes of moral thinking against each other. In season one of Breaking Bad, for instance, Walter White famously writes a list on a notepad of the pros and cons of murdering the drug dealer restrained in Jesse’s basement. Everyone, including Walt, feels that killing the man is wrong, but if they let him go Walt and his family will at risk of retaliation. This dilemma is in fact quite similar to ones he faces in each of the following seasons, right up until he has to decide whether or not to poison Brock. Trying to work out what Walt should do, and anxiously anticipating what he will do, are mental exercises few can help engaging in as they watch the show.

            The current reigning conception of narrative in academia explains the appeal of stories by suggesting it derives from their tendency to fulfill conscious and unconscious desires, most troublesomely our desires to have our prejudices reinforced. We like to see men behaving in ways stereotypically male, women stereotypically female, minorities stereotypically black or Hispanic, and so on. Cultural products like works of art, and even scientific findings, are embraced, the reasoning goes, because they cement the hegemony of various dominant categories of people within the society. This tradition in arts scholarship and criticism can in large part be traced back to psychoanalysis, but it has developed over the last century to incorporate both the predominant view of language in the humanities and the cultural determinism espoused by many scholars in the service of various forms of identity politics. 

            The postmodern ideology that emerged from the convergence of these schools is marked by a suspicion that science is often little more than a veiled effort at buttressing the political status quo, and its preeminent thinkers deliberately set themselves apart from the humanist and Enlightenment traditions that held sway in academia until the middle of the last century by writing in byzantine, incoherent prose. Even though there could be no rational way either to support or challenge postmodern ideas, scholars still take them as cause for leveling accusations against both scientists and storytellers of using their work to further reactionary agendas.

            For anyone who recognizes the unparalleled power of science both to advance our understanding of the natural world and to improve the conditions of human lives, postmodernism stands out as a catastrophic wrong turn, not just in academic history but in the moral evolution of our civilization. The equation of narrative with fantasy is a bizarre fantasy in its own right. Attempting to explain the appeal of a show like Breaking Bad by suggesting that viewers have an unconscious urge to be diagnosed with cancer and to subsequently become drug manufacturers is symptomatic of intractable institutional delusion. And, as Pinker recounts in Better Angels, literature, and novels in particular, were likely instrumental in bringing about the shift in consciousness toward greater compassion for greater numbers of people that resulted in the unprecedented decline in violence beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Yet, when it comes to arts scholarship, postmodernism is just about the only game in town. Granted, the writing in this tradition has progressed a great deal toward greater clarity, but the focus on identity politics has intensified to the point of hysteria: you’d be hard-pressed to find a major literary figure who hasn’t been accused of misogyny at one point or another, and any scientist who dares study something like gender differences can count on having her motives questioned and her work lampooned by well intentioned, well indoctrinated squads of well-poisoning liberal wags.

            When Emily Nussbaum complains about viewers of Breaking Bad being lulled by the “masculine adventure” and the digs against “nagging wives” into becoming enablers of Walt’s bad behavior, she’s doing exactly what so many of us were taught to do in academic courses on literary and film criticism, applying a postmodern feminist ideology to the show—and completely missing the point. As the series opens, Walt is deliberately portrayed as downtrodden and frustrated, and Skyler’s bullying is an important part of that dynamic. But the pleasure of watching the show doesn’t come so much from seeing Walt get out from under Skyler’s thumb—he never really does—as it does from anticipating and fretting over how far Walt will go in his criminality, goaded on by all that pent-up frustration. Walt shows a similar concern for himself, worrying over what effect his exploits will have on who he is and how he will be remembered. We see this in season three when he becomes obsessed by the “contamination” of his lab—which turns out to be no more than a house fly—and at several other points as well. Viewers are not concerned with Walt because he serves as an avatar acting out their fantasies (or else the show would have a lot more nude scenes with the principal of the school he teaches in). They’re concerned because, at least at the beginning of the show, he seems to be a good person and they can sympathize with his tribulations.

The much more solidly grounded view of narrative inspired by moral psychology suggests that common themes in fiction are not reflections or reinforcements of some dominant culture, but rather emerge from aspects of our universal human psychology. Our feelings about characters, according to this view, aren’t determined by how well they coincide with our abstract prejudices; on the contrary, we favor the types of people in fiction we would favor in real life. Indeed, if the story is any good, we will have to remind ourselves that the people whose lives we’re tracking really are fictional. Greene doesn’t explore the intersection between moral psychology and narrative in Moral Tribes, but he does give a nod to what we can only hope will be a burgeoning field when he writes, 

Nowhere is our concern for how others treat others more apparent than in our intense engagement with fiction. Were we purely selfish, we wouldn’t pay good money to hear a made-up story about a ragtag group of orphans who use their street smarts and quirky talents to outfox a criminal gang. We find stories about imaginary heroes and villains engrossing because they engage our social emotions, the ones that guide our reactions to real-life cooperators and rogues. We are not disinterested parties. (59)

Many people ask why we care so much about people who aren’t even real, but we only ever reflect on the fact that what we’re reading or viewing is a simulation when we’re not sufficiently engrossed by it.

            Was Nussbaum completely wrong to insist that Walt went beyond the pale when he poisoned Brock? She certainly showed the type of myopia Greene attributes to the automatic mode by forgetting Walt saved at least four lives by endangering the one. But most viewers probably had a similar reaction. The trouble wasn’t that she was appalled; it was that her postmodernism encouraged her to unquestioningly embrace and give voice to her initial feelings. Greene writes, 

It’s good that we’re alarmed by acts of violence. But the automatic emotional gizmos in our brains are not infinitely wise. Our moral alarm systems think that the difference between pushing and hitting a switch is of great moral significance. More important, our moral alarm systems see no difference between self-serving murder and saving a million lives at the cost of one. It’s a mistake to grant these gizmos veto power in our search for a universal moral philosophy. (253)

Greene doesn’t reveal whether he’s a Breaking Bad fan or not, but his discussion of the footbridge dilemma gives readers a good indication of how he’d respond to Walt’s actions.

If you don’t feel that it’s wrong to push the man off the footbridge, there’s something wrong with you. I, too, feel that it’s wrong, and I doubt that I could actually bring myself to push, and I’m glad that I’m like this. What’s more, in the real world, not pushing would almost certainly be the right decision. But if someone with the best of intentions were to muster the will to push the man off the footbridge, knowing for sure that it would save five lives, and knowing for sure that there was no better alternative, I would approve of this action, although I might be suspicious of the person who chose to perform it. (251)

The overarching theme of Breaking Bad, which Nussbaum fails utterly to comprehend, is the transformation of a good man into a bad one. When he poisons Brock, we’re glad he succeeded in saving his family, some of us are even okay with methods, but we’re worried—suspicious even—about what his ability to go through with it says about him. Over the course of the series, we’ve found ourselves rooting for Walt, and we’ve come to really like him. We don’t want to see him break too bad. And however bad he does break we can’t help hoping for his redemption. Since he’s a valuable member of our tribe, we’re loath to even consider it might be time to start thinking he has to go.




A Zero-Sum Game with Obamacare?

The main reason conservatives are so steadfast in their opposition to Obamacare is that they believe in the hard-and-fast rule that more government equals less freedom for citizens. In other words, conservatives see the relationship between the government and the people as a zero-sum game, with each win for one amounting to a loss for the other. There’s an obvious kernel of truth to this reasoning: government exists to govern after all, to set limits, to establish guidelines and create an incentive system to get the people to adhere to them. At a fundamental level, then, government exists to control behavior; therefore less government ought to mean more freedom. At the same time, governments inevitably become their own separate entities demanding a share of a society’s resources to sustain themselves.

More government means more taxes, which in turn means less takehome and less freedom to spend and invest. To make matters worse, governments tend to creep. Every time society faces a new challenge, there’s a temptation to create a new government agency to address it, and every time you create a new agency you effectively create a new interest group made up of those it employs and those it serves. So our task as citizens, conservative thinking goes, is to resist any increase in the size of government and do whatever we can to shrink the government we already have. This is the conservative philosophy in a nutshell—and it shows why for conservatives Obamacare was already a catastrophe even before the ink was dry.

As citizens, though, we must ask whether the relationship between the government and the people really is a zero-sum game. With a moment’s reflection it’s relatively easy to come up with some scenarios in which government is actually playing a positive-sum game with the people—a win for one also means a win for the other. A store owner pays taxes, limiting his freedom, but those taxes go to funding the construction of better roads, which makes it easier for customers to drive to the store, increasing his profits. A driver has to obey strict rules on the road, but those rules make driving much safer. We pay a percentage of our income to the government so law enforcement officers prevent thieves from stealing everything we own. What about those government employees and the beneficiaries of their services? Even if we assume the agency in question in no way benefits anyone beyond its reach, those beneficiaries will still have more to spend at other people’s stores, and they’ll be less prone to committing acts of violence to procure the things they need to survive, so it won’t be a total loss.

            By acknowledging that not every win for government is a loss for the people, we’ve reframed the question about whether a bigger government can ever be a good thing to one about how effective government is at improving the lives of the people it serves. The notion that Obamacare can’t be a good idea simply because it means more government really doesn’t make sense outside the conservatives’ ideological antagonism toward government. We must ask instead what the consequences of Obamacare going into effect will be on American citizens. To answer that, we need to examine all the provisions included in the law. Of course, things start getting complicated as soon as we begin such an examination—and that’s precisely why simple hard-and-fast rules like more government means less freedom get so much traction in public debates. They serve as time- and attention-saving heuristics, and we’re all desperate for those. But we all also know that attempts at finding shortcuts often backfire, and we often can’t trust the people who point them out to us.

            Since our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, the question of its ideal size is nonsensical. We must rather ask whether and how well each proposed law or agency will serve the people, whether it will serve them fairly, and whether it’s worth the costs. But, if we still want to come up with some basis for estimating the optimal size of government, keeping in mind that the more-government-less-freedom rule is built on faulty premises, we could compare governments against the well-being of their citizens across all the nations of the world. We can all probably agree at the outset that the extremes of anarchy in places like Somalia on the one side and totalitarianism in places like North Korea on the other are less than ideal. But countries that seem to be doing much better than the US on several measures—happiness, education outcomes, relative safety—actually have governments that are much bigger than ours. Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in Norway is 43.5, in Switzerland 29.2, in Finland 43.9, in Sweden 49.5, and in America 27.3.  These correlations between larger governments and measures of citizens’ well-being involve far too many confounding factors to suggest a hard-and-fast rule in the direction opposite to the one conservatives apply, but they really do show that the question of the ideal size of government is essentially pointless.    

            So let’s stop talking about Obamacare, or any other law, in terms of its impact on the size of government and focus instead on the impact it will have on our lives. 

Also read: What's Wrong with the Darwin Economy?

The Imp of the Underground and the Literature of Low Status

Image courtesy of Block Magazine
The one overarching theme in literature, and I mean all literature since there’s been any to speak of, is injustice. Does the girl get the guy she deserves? If so, the work is probably commercial, as opposed to literary, fiction. If not, then the reason begs pondering. Maybe she isn’t pretty enough, despite her wit and aesthetic sophistication, so we’re left lamenting the shallowness of our society’s males. Maybe she’s of a lower caste, despite her unassailable virtue, in which case we’re forced to question our complacency before morally arbitrary class distinctions. Or maybe the timing was just off—cursed fate in all her fickleness. Another literary work might be about the woman who ends up without the fulfilling career she longed for and worked hard to get, in which case we may blame society’s narrow conception of femininity, as evidenced by all those damn does-the-girl-get-the-guy stories.

            The prevailing theory of what arouses our interest in narratives focuses on the characters’ goals, which magically, by some as yet undiscovered cognitive mechanism, become our own. But plots often catch us up before any clear goals are presented to us, and our partisanship on behalf of a character easily endures shifting purposes. We as readers and viewers are not swept into stories through the transubstantiation of someone else’s striving into our own, with the protagonist serving as our avatar as we traverse the virtual setting and experience the pre-orchestrated plot. Rather, we reflexively monitor the character for signs of virtue and for a capacity to contribute something of value to his or her community, the same way we, in our nonvirtual existence, would monitor and assess a new coworker, classmate, or potential date. While suspense in commercial fiction hinges on high-stakes struggles between characters easily recognizable as good and those easily recognizable as bad, and comfortably condemnable as such, forward momentum in literary fiction—such as it is—depends on scenes in which the protagonist is faced with temptations, tests of virtue, moral dilemmas.

The strain and complexity of coming to some sort of resolution to these dilemmas often serves as a theme in itself, a comment on the mad world we live in, where it’s all but impossible to discern between right and wrong. Indeed, the most common emotional struggle depicted in literature is that between the informal, even intimate handling of moral evaluation—which comes natural to us owing to our evolutionary heritage as a group-living species—and the official, systematized, legal or institutional channels for determining merit and culpability that became unavoidable as societies scaled up exponentially after the advent of agriculture. These burgeoning impersonal bureaucracies are all too often ill-equipped to properly weigh messy mitigating factors, and they’re all too vulnerable to subversion by unscrupulous individuals who know how to game them. Psychopaths who ought to be in prison instead become CEOs of multinational investment firms, while sensitive and compassionate artists and humanitarians wind up taking lowly day jobs at schools or used book stores. But the feature of institutions and bureaucracies—and of complex societies more generally—that takes the biggest toll on our Pleistocene psyches, the one that strikes us as the most glaring injustice, is their stratification, their arrangement into steeply graded hierarchies.

Unlike our hierarchical ape cousins, all present-day societies still living in small groups as nomadic foragers, like those our ancestors lived in throughout the epoch that gave rise to the suite of traits we recognize as uniquely human, collectively enforce an ethos of egalitarianism. As anthropologist Christopher Boehm explains in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarianism,

Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him. (105)

Since humans evolved from a species that was ancestral to both chimpanzees and gorillas, we carry in us many of the emotional and behavioral capacities that support hierarchies. But, during all those millennia of egalitarianism, we also developed an instinctive distaste for behaviors that undermine an individual’s personal sovereignty. “On their list of serious moral transgressions,” Boehm explains,

hunter-gathers regularly proscribe the enactment of behavior that is politically overbearing. They are aiming at upstarts who threaten the autonomy of other group members, and upstartism takes various forms. An upstart may act the bully simply because he is disposed to dominate others, or he may become selfishly greedy when it is time to share meat, or he may want to make off with another man’s wife by threat or by force. He (or sometimes she) may also be a respected leader who suddenly begins to issue direct orders… An upstart may simply take on airs of superiority, or may aggressively put others down and thereby violate the group’s idea of how its main political actors should be treating one another. (43)

In a band of thirty people, it’s possible to keep a vigilant eye on everyone and head off potential problems. But, as populations grow, encounters with strangers in settings where no one knows one another open the way for threats to individual autonomy and casual insults to personal dignity. And, as professional specialization and institutional complexity increase in pace with technological advancement, power structures become necessary for efficient decision-making. Economic inequality then takes hold as a corollary of professional inequality.

None of this is to suggest that the advance of civilization inevitably leads to increasing injustice. In fact, per capita murder rates are much higher in hunter-gatherer societies. Nevertheless, the impersonal nature of our dealings with others in the modern world often strikes us as overly conducive to perverse incentives and unfair outcomes. And even the most mundane signals of superior status or the most subtle expressions of power, though officially sanctioned, can be maddening. Compare this famous moment in literary history to Boehm’s account of hunter-gatherer political philosophy:

I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me. (49)

The billiard player's failure to acknowledge his autonomy outrages the narrator, who then considers attacking the man who has treated him with such disrespect. But he can’t bring himself to do it. He explains,

I turned coward not from cowardice, but from the most boundless vanity. I was afraid, not of six-foot-tallness, nor of being badly beaten and chucked out the window; I really would have had physical courage enough; what I lacked was sufficient moral courage. I was afraid that none of those present—from the insolent marker to the last putrid and blackhead-covered clerk with a collar of lard who was hanging about there—would understand, and that they would all deride me if I started protesting and talking to them in literary language. Because among us to this day it is impossible to speak of a point of honor—that is, not honor, but a point of honor (point d’honneur) otherwise than in literary language. (50)

The languages of law and practicality are the only ones whose legitimacy is recognized in modern societies. The language of morality used to describe sentiments like honor has been consigned to literature. This man wants to exact his revenge for the slight he suffered, but that would require his revenge to be understood by witnesses as such. The derision he can count on from all the bystanders would just compound the slight. In place of a close-knit moral community, there is only a loose assortment of strangers. And so he has no recourse.

            The character in this scene could be anyone. Males may be more keyed into the physical dimension of domination and more prone to react with physical violence, but females likewise suffer from slights and belittlements, and react aggressively, often by attacking their tormenter's reputation through gossip. Treating a person of either gender as an insensate obstacle is easier when that person is a stranger you’re unlikely ever to encounter again. But another dynamic is at play in the scene which makes it still easier—almost inevitable. After being unceremoniously moved aside, the narrator becomes obsessed with the man who treated him so dismissively. Desperate to even the score, he ends up stalking the man, stewing resentfully, trying to come up with a plan. He writes,

And suddenly… suddenly I got my revenge in the simplest, the most brilliant way! The brightest idea suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes on holidays I would go to Nevsky Prospect between three and four, and stroll along the sunny side. That is, I by no means went strolling there, but experienced countless torments, humiliations and risings of bile: that must have been just what I needed. I darted like an eel among the passers-by, in a most uncomely fashion, ceaselessly giving way now to generals, now to cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies; in those moments I felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure. This was a torment of torments, a ceaseless, unbearable humiliation from the thought, which would turn into a ceaseless and immediate sensation, of my being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly—more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else—that went without saying—but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone. (52)

So the indignity, it seems, was not borne of being moved aside like a piece of furniture so much as it was of being afforded absolutely no status. That’s why being beaten would have been preferable; a beating implies a modicum of worthiness in that it demands recognition, effort, even risk, no matter how slight.

            The idea that occurs to the narrator for the perfect revenge requires that he first remedy the outward signals of his lower social status, “the measliness of my attire and the measliness… of my darting little figure,” as he calls them. The catch is that to don the proper attire for leveling a challenge, he has to borrow money from a man he works with—which only adds to his daily feelings of humiliation. Psychologists Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky have conducted experiments demonstrating that people display a disturbing readiness to compensate for feelings of powerlessness and low status by making pricy purchases, even though in the long run such expenditures only serve to perpetuate their lowly economic and social straits. The irony is heightened in the story when the actual revenge itself, the trappings for which were so dearly purchased, turns out to be so bathetic.

Suddenly, within three steps of my enemy, I unexpectedly decided, closed my eyes, and—we bumped solidly shoulder against shoulder! I did not yield an inch and passed by on perfectly equal footing! He did not even look back and pretended not to notice: but he only pretended, I’m sure of that. To this day I’m sure of it! Of course, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my purpose, preserved my dignity, yielded not a step, and placed myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home perfectly avenged for everything. (55)

But this perfect vengeance has cost him not only the price of a new coat and hat; it has cost him a full two years of obsession, anguish, and insomnia as well. The implication is that being of lowly status is a constant psychological burden, one that makes people so crazy they become incapable of making rational decisions.

Dostoevsky
            Literature buffs will have recognized these scenes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (as translated by Richard Prevear and Larissa Volokhnosky), which satirizes the idea of a society based on the principle of “rational egotism” as symbolized by N.G. Chernyshevsky’s image of a “crystal palace” (25), a well-ordered utopia in which every citizen pursues his or her own rational self-interests. Dostoevsky’s underground man hates the idea because regardless of how effectively such a society may satisfy people’s individual needs the rigid conformity it would demand would be intolerable. The supposed utopia, then, could never satisfy people’s true interests. He argues,

That’s just the thing, gentlemen, that there may well exist something that is dearer for almost every man than his very best profit, or (so as not to violate logic) that there is this one most profitable profit (precisely the omitted one, the one we were just talking about), which is chiefer and more profitable than all other profits, and for which a man is ready, if need be, to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, prosperity—in short, against all these beautiful and useful things—only so as to attain this primary, most profitable profit which is dearer to him than anything else. (22)

The underground man cites examples of people behaving against their own best interests in this section, which serves as a preface to the story of his revenge against the billiard player who so blithely moves him aside. The way he explains this “very best profit” which makes people like himself behave in counterproductive, even self-destructive ways is to suggest that nothing else matters unless everyone’s freedom to choose how to behave is held inviolate. He writes,

One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil… Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead. (25-6)
Arthur Rackham's Imp of Perverse Illustration

Notes from Underground was originally published in 1864. But the underground man echoes, wittingly or not, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s story from almost twenty years earlier, "The Imp of the Perverse," who posits an innate drive to perversity, explaining,

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object. Or if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say that through its promptings we act for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but in reality there is none so strong. With certain minds, under certain circumstances, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy of an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us, to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution to ulterior elements. (403)

This narrator’s suggestion of the irreducibility of the impulse notwithstanding, it’s noteworthy how often the circumstances that induce its expression include the presence of an individual of higher status.
Dov Cohen

            The famous shoulder bump in Notes from Underground has an uncanny parallel in experimental psychology. In 1996, Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, and their colleagues published the research article, “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’,” in which they report the results of a comparison between the cognitive and physiological responses of southern males to being bumped in a hallway and casually called an asshole to those of northern males. The study showed that whereas men from northern regions were usually amused by the run-in, southern males were much more likely to see it as an insult and a threat to their manhood, and they were much more likely to respond violently. The cortisol and testosterone levels of southern males spiked—the clever experimental setup allowed meaures before and after—and these men reported believing physical confrontation was the appropriate way to redress the insult. The way Cohen and Nisbett explain the difference is that the “culture of honor” that emerges in southern regions originally developed as a safeguard for men who lived as herders. Cultures that arise in farming regions place less emphasis on manly honor because farmland is difficult to steal. But if word gets out that a herder is soft then his livelihood is at risk. Cohen and Nisbett write,
Richard Nisbett

Such concerns might appear outdated for southern participants now that the South is no longer a lawless frontier based on a herding economy. However, we believe these experiments may also hint at how the culture of honor has sustained itself in the South. It is possible that the culture-of-honor stance has become “functionally autonomous” from the material circumstances that created it. Culture of honor norms are now socially enforced and perpetuated because they have become embedded in social roles, expectations, and shared definitions of manhood. (958)

            More recently, in a 2009 article titled “Low-Status Compensation: A Theory for Understanding the Role of Status in Cultures of Honor,” psychologist P.J. Henry takes another look at Cohen and Nisbett’s findings and offers another interpretation based on his own further experimentation. Henry’s key insight is that herding peoples are often considered to be of lower status than people with other professions and lifestyles. After establishing that the southern communities with a culture of honor are often stigmatized with negative stereotypes—drawling accents signaling low intelligence, high incidence of incest and drug use, etc.—both in the minds of outsiders and those of the people themselves, Henry suggests that a readiness to resort to violence probably isn’t now and may not ever have been adaptive in terms of material benefits.
P.J. Henry

An important perspective of low-status compensation theory is that low status is a stigma that brings with it lower psychological worth and value. While it is true that stigma also often accompanies lower economic worth and, as in the studies presented here, is sometimes defined by it (i.e., those who have lower incomes in a society have more of a social stigma compared with those who have higher incomes), low-status compensation theory assumes that it is psychological worth that is being protected, not economic or financial worth. In other words, the compensation strategies used by members of low-status groups are used in the service of psychological self-protection, not as a means of gaining higher status, higher income, more resources, etc. (453)

And this conception of honor brings us closer to the observations of the underground man and Poe’s boastful murderer. If psychological worth is what’s being defended, then economic considerations fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, since our financial standing tends to be so closely tied to our social standing, our efforts to protect our sense of psychological worth have a nasty tendency to backfire in the long run.

            Henry found evidence for the importance of psychological reactance, as opposed to cultural norms, in causing violence when he divided participants of his study into either high or low status categories and then had them respond to questions about how likely they would be to respond to insults with physical aggression. But before being asked about the propriety of violent reprisals half of the members of each group were asked to recall as vividly as they could a time in their lives when they felt valued by their community. Henry describes the findings thus:

When lower status participants were given the opportunity to validate their worth, they were less likely to endorse lashing out aggressively when insulted or disrespected. Higher status participants were unaffected by the manipulation. (463)

The implication is that people who feel less valuable than others, a condition that tends to be associated with low socioeconomic status, are quicker to retaliate because they are almost constantly on-edge, preoccupied at almost every moment with assessments of their standing in relation to others. Aside from a readiness to engage in violence, this type of obsessive vigilance for possible slights, and the feeling of powerlessness that attends it, can be counted on to keep people in a constant state of stress. The massive longitudinal study of British Civil Service employees called the Whitehall Study, which tracks the health outcomes of people at the various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, has found that the stress associated with low status also has profound effects on our physical well-being.  
When Americans are asked to imagine an ideal distribution of
wealth, the results show far less stratification than actually
exists.

            Though it may seem that violence-prone poor people occupying lowly positions on societal and professional totem poles are responsible for aggravating and prolonging their own misery because they tend to spend extravagantly and lash out at their perceived overlords with nary a concern for the consequences, the regularity with which low status leads to self-defeating behavior suggests the impulses are much more deeply rooted than some lazily executed weighing of pros and cons. If the type of wealth or status inequality the underground man finds himself on the short end of would have begun to take root in societies like the ones Christopher Boehm describes, a high-risk attempt at leveling the playing field would not only have been understandable—it would have been morally imperative. In a group of nomadic foragers, though, a man endeavoring to knock a would-be alpha down a few pegs would be able to count on the endorsement of most of the other group members. And the success rate for re-establishing and maintaining egalitarianism would have been heartening. Today, we are forced to live with inequality, even though beyond a certain point most people (regardless of political affiliation) see it as an injustice. 

            Some of the functions of literature, then, are to help us imagine just how intolerable life on the bottom can be, sympathize with those who get trapped in downward spirals of self-defeat, and begin to imagine what a more just and equitable society might look like. The catch is that we will be put off by characters who mistreat others or simply show a dearth of redeeming qualities.



Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

and Can't Win for Losing: Why there are So Many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change

Intuition vs. Science: What's Wrong with Your Thinking, Fast and Slow

Amazon
From Completely Useless to Moderately Useful
            In 1955, a twenty-one-year-old Daniel Kahneman was assigned the formidable task of creating an interview procedure to assess the fitness of recruits for the Israeli army. Kahneman’s only qualification was his bachelor’s degree in psychology, but the state of Israel had only been around for seven years at the time so the Defense Forces were forced to satisfice. In the course of his undergraduate studies, Kahneman had discovered the writings of a psychoanalyst named Paul Meehl, whose essays he would go on to “almost memorize” as a graduate student. Meehl’s work gave Kahneman a clear sense of how he should go about developing his interview technique.


If you polled psychologists today to get their predictions for how successful a young lieutenant inspired by a book written by a psychoanalyst would be in designing a personality assessment protocol—assuming you left out the names—you would probably get some dire forecasts. But Paul Meehl wasn’t just any psychoanalyst, and Daniel Kahneman has gone on to become one of the most influential psychologists in the world. The book whose findings Kahneman applied to his interview procedure was Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence, which Meehl lovingly referred to as “my disturbing little book.” Kahneman explains,


Meehl reviewed the results of 20 studies that had analyzed whether clinical predictions based on the subjective impressions of trained professionals were more accurate than statistical predictions made by combining a few scores or ratings according to a rule. In a typical study, trained counselors predicted the grades of freshmen at the end of the school year. The counselors interviewed each student for forty-five minutes. They also had access to high school grades, several aptitude tests, and a four-page personal statement. The statistical algorithm used only a fraction of this information: high school grades and one aptitude test. (222)



Daniel Kahneman
The findings for this prototypical study are consistent with those arrived at by researchers over the decades since Meehl released his book:


The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tantamount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convincingly documented. (223)       


            Kahneman designed the interview process by coming up with six traits he thought would have direct bearing on a soldier’s success or failure, and he instructed the interviewers to assess the recruits on each dimension in sequence. His goal was to make the process as systematic as possible, thus reducing the role of intuition. The response of the recruitment team will come as no surprise to anyone: “The interviewers came close to mutiny” (231). They complained that their knowledge and experience were being given short shrift, that they were being turned into robots. Eventually, Kahneman was forced to compromise, creating a final dimension that was holistic and subjective. The scores on this additional scale, however, seemed to be highly influenced by scores on the previous scales.


When commanding officers evaluated the new recruits a few months later, the team compared the evaluations with their predictions based on Kahneman’s six scales. “As Meehl’s book had suggested,” he writes, “the new interview procedure was a substantial improvement over the old one… We had progressed from ‘completely useless’ to ‘moderately useful’” (231).   



Amos Tversky
            Kahneman recalls this story at about the midpoint of his magnificent, encyclopedic book Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is just one in a long series of run-ins with people who don’t understand or can’t accept the research findings he presents to them, and it is neatly woven into his discussions of those findings. Each topic and each chapter feature a short test that allows you to see where you fall in relation to the experimental subjects. The remaining thread in the tapestry is the one most readers familiar with Kahneman’s work most anxiously anticipated—his friendship with AmosTversky, with whom he shared the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.


Most of the ideas that led to experiments that led to theories which made the two famous and contributed to the founding of an entire new field, behavioral economics, were borne of casual but thrilling conversations both found intrinsically rewarding in their own right. Reading this book, as intimidating as it appears at a glance, you get glimmers of Kahneman’s wonder at the bizarre intricacies of his own and others’ minds, flashes of frustration at how obstinately or casually people avoid the implications of psychology and statistics, and intimations of the deep fondness and admiration he felt toward Tversky, who died in 1996 at the age of 59.


Pointless Punishments and Invisible Statistics


            When Kahneman begins a chapter by saying, “I had one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of my career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training” (175), it’s hard to avoid imagining how he might have relayed the incident to Amos years later. It’s also hard to avoid speculating about what the book might’ve looked like, or if it ever would have been written, if he were still alive. The eureka experience Kahneman had in this chapter came about, as many of them apparently did, when one of the instructors objected to his assertion, in this case that “rewards for improved performance work better than punishment of mistakes.” The instructor insisted that over the long course of his career he’d routinely witnessed pilots perform worse after praise and better after being screamed at. “So please,” the instructor said with evident contempt, “don’t tell us that reward works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” Kahneman, characteristically charming and disarming, calls this “a joyous moment of insight” (175).


            The epiphany came from connecting a familiar statistical observation with the perceptions of an observer, in this case the flight instructor. The problem is that we all have a tendency to discount the role of chance in success or failure. Kahneman explains that the instructor’s observations were correct, but his interpretation couldn’t have been more wrong.



Francis Galton, who first
described regression to the mean
What he observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of performance. Naturally, he only praised a cadet whose performance was far better than average. But the cadet was probably just lucky on that particular attempt and therefore likely to deteriorate regardless of whether or not he was praised. Similarly, the instructor would shout into the cadet’s earphones only when the cadet’s performance was unusually bad and therefore likely to improve regardless of what the instructor did. The instructor had attached a causal interpretation to the inevitable fluctuations of a random process. (175-6)


The roster of domains in which we fail to account for regression to the mean is disturbingly deep. Even after you’ve learned about the phenomenon it’s still difficult to recognize the situations you should apply your understanding of it to. Kahneman quotes statistician David Freedman to the effect that whenever regression becomes pertinent in a civil or criminal trial the side that has to explain it will pretty much always lose the case. Not understanding regression, however, and not appreciating how it distorts our impressions has implications for even the minutest details of our daily experiences. “Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us,” Kahneman writes, “and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty” (176). Probability is a bitch.


The Illusion of Skill in Stock-Picking


            Probability can be expensive too. Kahneman recalls being invited to give a lecture to advisers at an investment firm. To prepare for the lecture, he asked for some data on the advisers’ performances and was given a spreadsheet for investment outcomes over eight years. When he compared the numbers statistically, he found that none of the investors was consistently more successful than the others. The correlation between the outcomes from year to year was nil. When he attended a dinner the night before the lecture “with some of the top executives of the firm, the people who decide on the size of bonuses,” he knew from experience how tough a time he was going to have convincing them that “at least when it came to building portfolios, the firm was rewarding luck as if it were a skill.” Still, he was amazed by the execs’ lack of shock:

We all went on calmly with our dinner, and I have no doubt that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before. The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions—and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem—are simply not absorbed. (216)


The scene that follows echoes the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s classic paean to skepticism Demon-Haunted World, where Sagan recounts being bombarded with questions about science by a driver who was taking him from the airport to an auditorium where he was giving a lecture. He found himself explaining to the driver again and again that what he thought was science—Atlantis, aliens, crystals—was, in fact, not. "As we drove through the rain," Sagan writes, "I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life" (4). In Kahneman’s recollection of his drive back to the airport after his lecture, he writes of a conversation he had with his own driver, one of the execs he’d dined with the night before. 


He told me, with a trace of defensiveness, “I have done very well for the firm and no one can take that away from me.” I smiled and said nothing. But I thought, “Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it? (216)


Blinking at the Power of Intuitive Thinking



Malcolm Gladwell
            It wouldn’t surprise Kahneman at all to discover how much stories like these resonate. Indeed, he must’ve considered it a daunting challenge to conceive of a sensible, cognitively easy way to get all of his vast knowledge of biases and heuristics and unconscious, automatic thinking into a book worthy of the science—and worthy too of his own reputation—while at the same time tying it all together with some intuitive overarching theme, something that would make it read more like a novel than an encyclopedia. Malcolm Gladwell faced a similar challenge in writing Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking, but he had the advantages of a less scholarly readership, no obligation to be comprehensive, and the freedom afforded to someone writing about a field he isn’t one of the acknowledged leaders and creators of. Ultimately, Gladwell’s book painted a pleasing if somewhat incoherent picture of intuitive thinking. The power he refers to in the title is over the thoughts and actions of the thinker, not, as many must have presumed, to arrive at accurate conclusions.


It’s entirely possible that Gladwell’s misleading title came about deliberately, since there’s a considerable market for the message that intuition reigns supreme over science and critical thinking. But there are points in his book where it seems like Gladwell himself is confused. Robert Cialdini, Steve Marin, and Noah Goldstein cover some of the same research Kahneman and Gladwell do, but their book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive is arranged in a list format, with each chapter serving as its own independent mini-essay.



Robert Cialdini
Early in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces us to two characters, System 1 and System 2, who pass the controls of our minds back and forth between themselves according the expertise and competency demanded by current exigency or enterprise. System 1 is the more intuitive, easygoing guy, the one who does what Gladwell refers to as “thin-slicing,” the fast thinking of the title. System 2 works deliberately and takes effort on the part of the thinker. Most people find having to engage their System 2—multiply 17 by 24—unpleasant to one degree or another.


The middle part of the book introduces readers to two other characters, ones whose very names serve as a challenge to the field of economics. Econs are the beings market models and forecasts are based on. They are rational, selfish, and difficult to trick. Humans, the other category, show inconsistent preferences, changing their minds depending on how choices are worded or presented, are much more sensitive to the threat of loss than the promise of gain, are sometimes selfless, and not only can be tricked with ease but routinely trick themselves. Finally, Kahneman introduces us to our “Two Selves,” the two ways we have of thinking about our lives, either moment-to-moment—experiences he, along with Mihaly Csikzentmihhalyi (author of Flow) pioneered the study of—or in abstract hindsight. It’s not surprising at this point that there are important ways in which the two selves tend to disagree.


Intuition and Cerebration


 The Econs versus Humans distinction, with its rhetorical purpose embedded in the terms, is plenty intuitive. The two selves idea, despite being a little too redolent of psychoanalysis, also works well. But the discussions about System 1 and System 2 are never anything but ethereal and abstruse. Kahneman’s stated goal was to discuss each of the systems as if they were characters in a plot, but he’s far too concerned with scientifically precise definitions to run with the metaphor. The term system is too bloodless and too suggestive of computer components; it’s too much of the realm of System 2 to be at all satisfying to System 1. The collection of characteristics Thinking links to the first system (see a list below) is lengthy and fascinating and not easily summed up or captured in any neat metaphor. But we all know what Kahneman is talking about. We could use mythological figures, perhaps Achilles or Orpheus for System 1 and Odysseus or Hephaestus for System 2, but each of those characters comes with his own narrative baggage. Not everyone’s System 1 is full of rage like Achilles, or musical like Orpheus. Maybe we could assign our System 1s idiosyncratic totem animals.
  

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi
But I think the most familiar and the most versatile term we have for System 1 is intuition. It is a hairy and unpredictable beast, but we all recognize it. System 2 is actually the harder to name because people so often mistake their intuitions for logical thought. Kahneman explains why this is the case—because our cognitive resources are limited our intuition often offers up simple questions as substitutes from more complicated ones—but we must still have a term that doesn’t suggest complete independence from intuition and that doesn’t imply deliberate thinking operates flawlessly, like a calculator. I propose cerebration. The cerebral cortex rests on a substrate of other complex neurological structures. It’s more developed in humans than in any other animal. And the way it rolls trippingly off the tongue is as eminently appropriate as the swish of intuition. Both terms work well as verbs too. You can intuit, or you can cerebrate. And when your intuition is working in integrated harmony with your cerebration you are likely in the state of flow Csikzentmihalyi pioneered the study of.


While Kahneman’s division of thought into two systems never really resolves into an intuitively manageable dynamic, something he does throughout the book, which I initially thought was silly, seems now a quite clever stroke of brilliance. Kahneman has no faith in our ability to clean up our thinking. He’s an expert on all the ways thinking goes awry, and even he catches himself making all the common mistakes time and again. In the introduction, he proposes a way around the impenetrable wall of cognitive illusion and self-justification. If all the people gossiping around the water cooler are well-versed in the language describing biases and heuristics and errors of intuition, we may all benefit because anticipating gossip can have a profound effect on behavior. No one wants to be spoken of as the fool.


Kahneman writes, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.” It’s not easy to tell from his straightforward prose, but I imagine him writing lines like that with a wry grin on his face. He goes on,


Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others. Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters. The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home. (3)


So we encourage the education of others to trick ourselves into trying to be smarter in their eyes. Toward that end, Kahneman ends each chapter with a list of sentences in quotation marks—lines you might overhear passing that water cooler if everyone where you work read his book.  I think he’s overly ambitious. At some point in the future, you may hear lines like “They’re counting on denominator neglect” (333) in a boardroom—where people are trying to impress colleagues and superiors—but I seriously doubt you’ll hear it in the break room. Really, what he’s hoping is that people will start talking more like behavioral economists. Though some undoubtedly will, Thinking, Fast and Slow probably won’t ever be as widely read as, say, Freud’s lurid pseudoscientific On the Interpretation of Dreams. That’s a tragedy.


Still, it’s pleasant to think about a group of friends and colleagues talking about something other than football and American Idol.

Characteristics of System 1 (105): Try to come up with a good metaphor.

·         generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions
·         operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control
·         can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when particular patterns are detected (search)
·         executes skilled responses and generates skilled intuitions, after adequate training
·         creates a coherent pattern of activated ideas in associative memory
·         links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance
·         distinguishes the surprising from the normal
·         infers and invents causes and intentions
·         neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
·         is biased to believe and confirm
·         exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
·         focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
·         generates a limited set of basic assessments
·         represents sets by norms and prototypes, does not integrate
·         matches intensities across scales (e.g., size and loudness)
·         computes more than intended (mental shotgun)
·         sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)
·         is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)
·         overweights low probabilities.
·         shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity (psychophysics)
·         responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
·         frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another

Tax Demagoguery

Image Courtesy of historiann.com

        Robert Frank, in The Darwin Economy, begins with the premise that having a government is both desirable and unavoidable, and that to have a government we must raise revenue somehow. He then goes on to argue that since taxes act as disincentives to whatever behavior is being taxed we should tax behaviors that harm citizens. The U.S. government currently taxes behaviors we as citizens ought to encourage, like hiring workers and making lots of money through productive employment. Frank’s central proposal is to impose a progressive consumption tax. He believes this is the best way to discourage “positional arms races,” those situations in which trying to keep up with the Joneses leads to harmful waste with no net benefit as everyone's efforts cancel each other out. One of his examples is house size:

“The explosive growth of CEO pay in recent decades, for example, has led many executives to build larger and larger mansions. But those mansions have long since passed the point at which greater absolute size yields additional utility. Most executives need or want larger mansions simply because the standards that define large have changed” (61).

The crucial point here is that this type of wasteful spending doesn’t just harm the CEOs. Runaway spending at the top of the income ladder affects those on the lower rungs through a phenomenon Frank calls “expenditure cascades”:

“Top earners build bigger mansions simply because they have more money. The middle class shows little evidence of being offended by that. On the contrary, many seem drawn to photo essays and TV programs about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But the larger mansions of the rich shift the frame of reference that defines acceptable housing for the near-rich, who travel in many of the same social circles… So the near-rich build bigger, too, and that shifts the relevant framework for others just below them, and so on, all the way down the income scale. By 2007, the median new single-family house built in the United States had an area of more than 2,300 square feet, some 50 percent more than its counterpart from 1970” (61-2).

This growth in house size has occurred despite the stagnation of incomes for median earners. In the wake of the collapse of the housing market, it’s easy to see how serious this type of damage can be to society.

           Frank closes a chapter titled “Taxing Harmful Activities” with a section whose heading poses the question, “A Slippery Slope?” You can imagine a tax system that socially engineers your choices down to the sugar content of your beverages. “It’s a legitimate concern,” he acknowledges (193). But taxing harmful activities is still a better idea than taxing saving and job creation. Like any new approach, it risks going off track or going too far, but for each proposed tax a cost-benefit analysis can be done. As I’ve tried over the past few days to arrive at a list of harmful activities that are in immediate need of having a tax imposed on them, one occurred to me that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else before: demagoguery.

Wouldn't want to appear partisan.
Image courtesy of tvguide.com
           Even bringing up the topic makes me uncomfortable. Free speech is one of the central pillars of our democracy. So the task becomes defining demagoguery in a way that doesn’t stifle the ready exchange of ideas. But first let me answer the question of why this particular behavior made my shortlist. A quick internet search will make it glaringly apparent that large numbers of Tea Party supporters believe things that are simply not true. And, having attended my local Occupy Wall Street protest, I can attest there were some whacky ideas being broadcast there as well. The current state of political discourse in America is chaotic at best and tribal at worst. Policies are being enacted every day based on ideas with no validity whatsoever. The promulgation of such ideas is doing serious harm to our society—and, worse, it’s making rational, substantive debate and collectively beneficial problem-solving impossible.

           So, assuming we can kill a couple of birds with a tax stone, how would we go about actually implementing the program? I propose forming a group of researchers and journalists whose task is to investigate complaints by citizens. Organizations like Factcheck.org and Politifact.com have already gone a long way toward establishing the feasibility of such a group. Membership will be determined by nominations from recognized research institutions like the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the Pew Research Center, to whom appeals can be made in the event of intensely contended rulings by the group itself. Anyone who's accepted payment for any type of political activism will be ineligible for membership. The money to pay for the group and provide it with the necessary resources can come from the tax itself (though that might cause a perverse incentive if members' pay isn't independent of their findings) or revenues raised by taxes on other harmful activities.

         The first step will be the complaint, which can be made by any citizen. If the number of complaints reaches some critical mass or if the complaints are brought by recognized experts in the relevant field, then the research group will investigate. Once the group has established with a sufficient degree of certainty that a claim is false, anyone who broadcasts the claim will be taxed an amount determined by the size of the audience. The complaints, reports of the investigations, and the findings can all be handled through a website. We may even want to give the individual who made the claim a chance to correct her- or himself before leveling the tax. Legitimate news organizations already do this, so they’d have nothing to worry about.

           Talk show hosts who repeatedly make false claims will be classified as demagogues and have to pay a fixed rate to obviate any need for the research group to watch every show and investigate every claim. But anyone who is designated a demagogue must advertise the designation on the screen or at regular intervals on the air—along with a link or address to the research groups’ site, where the audience can view a list of the false claims that earned him or her the designation.
Individuals speaking to each other won’t be affected. And bloggers with small audiences, if they are taxed at all, won’t be taxed much—or they can simply correct their mistakes. Demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore will still be free to spew nonsense; but they’ll have to consider the costs—because the harm they cause by being sloppy or mendacious doesn’t seem to bother them.

Image Courtesy of crooksandliars.com
         Now, a demagogue isn't defined as someone who makes false claims; it's someone who uses personal charisma and tactics for whipping people into emotional frenzies to win support for a cause. I believe the chief strategy of demagogues is to incite tribalism, a sense of us-vs-them. But making demagogues pay for their false claims would, I believe, go a long way toward undermining their corrosive influence on public discourse.

      Finally, I refer you, dear reader, to a video that highlights the problem. It's from a liberal - whose show I don't watch, so I can't say how much of a demagogue she is - but I'm sure she'd find some whoppers on her own side of the divide were she inclined to look.

What's Wrong with The Darwin Economy?

          I can easily imagine a conservative catching a glimpse of the cover of Robert Frank’s new book and having his interest piqued. The title, The Darwin Economy, evokes that famous formulation, “survival of the fittest,” but in the context of markets, which suggests a perspective well in keeping with the anti-government principles republicans and libertarians hold dear. The subtitle, Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, further facilitates the judgment of the book by its cover as another in the long tradition of paeans to the glorious workings of unregulated markets.

            The Darwin Economy puts forth an argument that most readers, even those who keep apace of the news and have a smidgen of background in economics, have probably never heard, namely that the divergence between individual and collective interests, which Adam Smith famously suggested gets subsumed into market forces which inevitably redound to the common good, in fact leads predictably to outcomes that are detrimental to everyone involved. His chief example is a hypothetical business that can either pay to have guards installed to make its power saws safer for workers to operate or leave the saws as they are and pay the workers more for taking on the added risk.

            This is exactly the type of scenario libertarians love. What right does government have to force businesses in this industry to install the guards? Governmental controls end up curtailing the freedom of workers to choose whether to work for a company with better safety mechanisms or one that offers better pay. It robs citizens of the right to steer their own lives and puts decisions in the hands of those dreaded Washington bureaucrats. “The implication,” Frank writes, “is that, for well-informed workers at least, Adam Smith’s invisible hand would provide the best combinations of wages and safety even without regulation” (41).

            Frank challenges the invisible hand doctrine by demonstrating that it fails to consider the full range of the ramifications of market competition, most notably the importance of relative position. But The Darwin Economy offers no support for the popular liberal narrative about exploitative CEOs. Frank writes: “many of the explanations offered by those who have denounced market outcomes from the left fail the no-cash-on-the-table test. These critics, for example, often claim that we must regulate workplace safety because workers would otherwise be exploited by powerful economic elites” (36). But owners and managers are motivated by profits, not by some perverse desire to see their workers harmed.

"Mobility isn’t perfect, but people change jobs far more frequently than in the past. And even when firms know that most of their employees are unlikely to move, some do move and others eventually retire or die. So employers must maintain their ability to attract a steady flow of new applicants, which means they must nurture their reputations. There are few secrets in the information age. A firm that exploits its workers will eventually experience serious hiring difficulties" (38).

This is what Frank means by the no-cash-on-the-table test: companies who maintain a reputation for being good to their people attract more talented applicants, thus increasing productivity, thus increasing profits. There’s no incentive to exploit workers just for the sake of exploiting them, as many liberals seem to suggest.

            What makes Frank convincing, and what makes him something other than another liberal in the established line-up, is that he’s perfectly aware of the beneficial workings of the free market, as far as they go. He bases his policy analyses on a combination of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle—whereby the government only has the right to regulate the actions of a citizen if those actions are harmful to other citizens—and Ronald Coase’s insight that government solutions to harmful actions should mimic the arrangements that the key players would arrive at in the absence of any barriers to negotiation. “Before Coase,” Frank writes,  
       
"it was common for policy discussions of activities that cause harm to others to be couched in terms of perpetrators and victims. A factory that created noise was a perpetrator, and an adjacent physician whose practice suffered as a result was a victim. Coase’s insight was that externalities like noise or smoke are purely reciprocal phenomena. The factory’s noise harms the doctor, yes; but to invoke the doctor’s injury as grounds for prohibiting  the noise would harm the factory owner" (87).

This is a far cry from the naïve thinking of some liberal do-gooder. Frank, following Coase, goes on to suggest that what would formerly have been referred to as the victim should foot the bill for a remedy to the sound pollution if it’s cheaper for him than for the factory. At one point, Frank even gets some digs in on Ralph Nader for his misguided attempts to protect the poor from the option of accepting payments for seats when their flights are overbooked.

            Though he may be using the same market logic as libertarian economists, he nevertheless arrives at very different conclusions vis-à-vis the role and advisability of government intervention. Whether you accept his conclusions or not hinges on how convincing you find his thinking about the role of relative position. Getting back to the workplace safety issue, we might follow conventional economic theory and apply absolute values to the guards protecting workers from getting injured by saws. If the value of the added safety to an individual worker exceeds the dollar amount increase he or she can expect to get at a company without the guards, that worker should of course work at the safer company. Unfortunately, considerations of safety are abstract, and they force us to think in ways we tend not to be good at. And there are other, more immediate and concrete considerations that take precedence over most people’s desire for safety.

            If working at the company without the guards on the saws increases your income enough for you to move to a house in a better school district, thus affording your children a better education, then the calculations of the absolute worth of the guards’ added safety go treacherously awry. Frank explains

"the invisible-hand narrative assumes that extra income is valued only for the additional absolute consumption it supports. A higher wage, however, also confers a second benefit for certain (and right away) that safety only provides in the rare cases when the guard is what keeps the careless hand from the blade—the ability to consume more relative to others. That fact is nowhere more important than in the case of parents’ desires to send their children to the best possible schools…. And because school quality is an inherently relative concept, when others also trade safety for higher wages, no one will move forward in relative terms. They’d succeed only in bidding up the prices of houses in better school districts" (40).

Housing prices go up. Kids end up with no educational advantage. And workers are less safe. But any individual who opted to work at the safer company for less pay would still have to settle for an inferior school district. This is a collective action problem, so individuals are trapped, which of course is something libertarians are especially eager to avoid.

            Frank draws an analogy with many of the bizarre products of what Darwin called sexual selection, most notably those bull elk battling it out on the cover of the book. Antler size places each male elk in a relative position; in their competition for mates, absolute size means nothing. So natural selection—here operating in place of Smith’s invisible hand—ensures that the bull with the largest antlers reproduces and that antler size accordingly undergoes runaway growth. But what’s good for mate competition is bad for a poor elk trying to escape from a pack of hungry wolves. If there were some way for a collective agreement to be negotiated that forced every last bull elk to reduce the size of his antlers by half, none would object, because they would all benefit. This is the case as well with the workers' decision to regulate safety guards on saws. And Frank gives several other examples, both in the animal kingdom and in the realms of human interactions.

            I’m simply not qualified to assess Frank’s proposals under the Coase principle to tax behaviors that have harmful externalities, like the production of CO2, including a progressive tax on consumption. But I can’t see any way around imposing something that achieves the same goals at some point in the near future.

            My main criticism of The Darwin Economy is that the first chapter casual conservative readers will find once they’ve cracked the alluring cover is the least interesting of the book because it lists the standard litany of liberal complaints. A book as cogent and lucid as this one, a book which manages to take on abstract principles and complex scenarios while still being riveting, a book which contributes something truly refreshing and original to the exhausted and exhausting debates between liberals and conservatives, should do everything humanly possible to avoid being labeled into oblivion. Alas, the publishers and book-sellers would never allow a difficult-to-place book to grace their shelves or online inventories.