People who believe that a certain group of other people deserve higher relative status often refuse to laugh at jokes about that group of people. Unfortunately (for them) this tends to make them look like uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor; a group whom almost everyone agrees should have low status. Why not instead focus on making up more jokes about the group whose relative status seems too high? It seems like that should have the opposite effect on the campaigners likability, and so also encourage more people to join that side of the fight. What am I missing?
Tag Archives: policy
It is commonly claimed that humans’ explicit conscious faculties arose for explaining to others about themselves and their intentions. Similarly when people talk about designing robots that interact with people, they often mention the usefulness of designing such robots to be able to explain to you why it is they changed your investments or rearranged your kitchen.
Perhaps this is a generally useful principle for internally complex units dealing with each other: have some part that keeps an overview of what’s going on inside and can discuss it with others.
If so, the same seems like it should be true of companies. However my experience with companies is that they are often designed specifically to prevent you from being able to get any explanations out of them. Anyone who actually makes decisions regarding you seems to be guarded by layers of people who can’t be held accountable for anything. They can sweetly lament your frustrations, agree that the policies seem unreasonable, sincerely wish you a nice day, and most importantly, have nothing to do with the policies in question and so can’t be expected to justify them or change them based on any arguments or threats you might make.
I wondered why this strategy should be different for companies, and a friend pointed out that companies do often make an effort at more high level explanations of what they are doing, though not necessarily accurate: vision statements, advertisements etc. PR is often the metaphor for how the conscious mind works after all.
So it seems the company strategy is more complex: general explanations coupled with avoidance of being required to make more detailed ones of specific cases and policies. So, is this strategy generally useful? Is it how humans behave? Is it how successful robots will behave?*
*assuming there is more than one
People seem to like raising awareness a lot. One might suspect too much, assuming the purpose is to efficiently solve whatever problem the awareness is being raised about. It’s hard to tell whether it is too much by working out how much is the right amount then checking if it matches what people do. But a feasible heuristic approach is to consider factors that might bias people one way or the other, relative to what is optimal.
Christian Lander at Stuff White People Like suggests some reasons raising awareness should be an inefficiently popular solution to other people’s problems:
This belief [that raising awareness will solve everything] allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges…
What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets. In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference…
So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)…
He seems to suspect that people are not trying to solve problems, but I shan’t argue about that here. At least some people think that they are trying to effectively campaign; this post is concerned with biases they might face. Christian may or may not demonstrate a bias for these people. All things equal, it is better to solve problems in easy, fun, safe ways. However if it is easier to overestimate the effectiveness of easy, fun, safe things, we probably raise awareness too much. I suspect this is true. I will add three more reasons to expect awareness to be over-raised.
First, people tend to identify with their moral concerns. People identify with moral concerns much more than they do with their personal, practical concerns for instance. Those who think the environment is being removed too fast are proudly environmentalists while those who think the bushes on their property are withering too fast do not bother to advertise themselves with any particular term, even if they spend much more time trying to correct the problem. It’s not part of their identity.
People like others to know about their identities. And raising awareness is perfect for this. Continually incorporating one’s concern about foreign forestry practices into conversations can be awkward, effortful and embarrassing. Raising awareness displays your identity even more prominently, while making this an unintended side effect of costly altruism for the cause rather than purposeful self advertisement.
That raising awareness is driven in part by desire to identify is evidenced by the fact that while ‘preaching to the converted’ is the epitome of verbal uselessness, it is still a favorite activity for those raising awareness, for instance at rallies, dinners and lectures. Wanting to raise awareness to people who are already well aware suggests that the information you hope to transmit is not about the worthiness of the cause. What else new could you be showing them? An obvious answer is that they learn who else is with the cause. Which is some information about the worthiness of the cause, but has other reasons for being presented. Robin Hanson has pointed out that breast cancer awareness campaign strategy relies on everyone already knowing about not just breast cancer but about the campaign. He similarly concluded that the aim is probably to show a political affiliation.
In many cases of identifying with a group to oppose some foe, it is useful for the group if you often declare your identity proudly and commit yourself to the group. If we are too keen to raise awareness about our identites, perhaps we are just used to those cases, and treat breast cancer like any other enemy who might be scared off by assembling a large and loyal army who don’t like it. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I think our enthusiasm for increased awareness of everything is given a strong push by our enthusiasm for visible identifying with moral causes.
Secondly and relatedly, moral issues arouse a person’s drive to determine who is good and who is bad, and to blame the bad ones. This urge to judge and blame should for instance increase the salience of everyone around you eating meat if you are a vegetarian. This is at the expense of giving attention to any of the larger scale features of the world which contribute to how much meat people eat and how good or bad this is for animals. Rather than finding a particularly good way to solve the problem of too many animals suffering, you could easily be sidetracked by fact that your friends are being evil. Raising awareness seems like a pretty good solution if the glaring problem is that everyone around you is committing horrible sins, perhaps inadvertently.
Lastly, raising awareness is specifically designed to be visible, so it is intrinsically especially likely to spread among creatures who copy one another. If I am concerned about climate change, possible actions that will come to mind will be those I have seen others do. I have seen in great detail how people march in the streets or have stalls or stickers or tell their friends. I have little idea how people develop more efficient technologies or orchestrate less publicly visible political influence, or even how they change the insulation in their houses. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is too much awareness raising; it is less effort to do things you already know how to do, so it is better to do them, all things equal. However too much awareness raising will happen if we don’t account for there being a big selection effect other than effectiveness in which solutions we will know about, and expend a bit more effort finding much more effective solutions accordingly.
So there are my reasons to expect too much awareness is raised. It’s easy and fun, it lets you advertise your identity, it’s the obvious thing to do when you are struck by the badness of those around you, and it is the obvious thing to do full stop. Are there any opposing reasons people would tend to be biased against raising awareness? If not, perhaps I should reconsider stopping telling you about this problem and finding a more effective way to lower awareness instead.
Women are often encouraged to move into male dominated activities, such as engineering. This is not because overall interest in engineering appears to be lacking, but because women’s interest seems to be less than men’s. This is arguably for cultural reasons, so it is argued that culture is inhibiting women from pursuing careers that they may be otherwise suited to and happy with.
If the symptom is that women do less engineering than men, why do we always encourage women to do more engineering, rather than encouraging men to do less? It seems we think men are presently endowed with the perfect level of engineering interest, and women should feel the same, but are impaired by culture.
This could make sense. For instance, perhaps all humans somehow naturally have the socially optimal level of engineering interest, but then insidious cultural influences eat away those interests in women. I think this is roughly how many people model the situation.
This model seems unlikely to be anywhere near the truth. Culture is packed with influences. These influences are not specific to inhibiting women’s impulses to do supposedly masculine things. They tell everyone what sort of people engineers are supposed to be, how much respect a person will get for technical abilities, how much respect they get for wealth, which interests will be taken to indicate the personal qualities they wish to express, which personal qualities are good to express, which cities are most attractive to live in, etc etc etc. Everyone’s level of inclination to be an engineer is significantly composed of cultural influences.
A cacophony of cultural influences may somehow culminate in a socially optimum level of interest in engineering of course. But it is hard to believe that some spectacular invisible mechanism orchestrates this perfect equilibrium for all cultural influences, except those that are gender specific. If there are fleets of rogue cultural influences sabotaging women’s inclinations, this must cast suspicion on the optimality of all other less infamous cultural influences.
Besides the incredible unlikelihood that all cultural influences except gender related ones culminate in a socially optimal level of interest in a given activity, it just doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on. Socially optimal cultural influences would mainly correct for externalities, for instance encouraging activities which help others beyond what the doer would be compensated. But this is not the criterion we use for dealing out respect. It may be part of it, or related to it, but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs, though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation and that CEOs are paid more than they are worth. We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO.
Incidentally, the correction of cultural influences is another example of expressing pro-female sympathy by encouraging females to do manly things. It seems here we accept that many male jobs are higher status than many female jobs, so to give women more status we would like them to do more of these jobs. Notice that while more men operate garbage trucks, there is less encouragement for women to do that. But my main point here is that we are obsessed with equalising the few cultural influences which are related to gender, while ignoring the sea of other influences which may misdirect both genders equally.
If a gender gap only tells us that either men or women or both have the wrong level of interest in engineering, and we don’t know what the right level is, trying to move women’s interest to equal men’s seems about as likely to be an improvement as it is a deterioration, except to the extent people like equality for its own sake, or where the cultural influences have other effects, such as making women feel less capable or worthy. If we are really concerned about people finding places in the world which suit them and let them make a worthy contribution, we should probably focus on other influences too, rather than being mesmerised by the unfairness of a politically salient discrepancy in influence.
So when people motivate their concern about a gender gap with the thought that there might for instance be capable and potentially interested women out there, missing their calling to be engineers, I can’t feel this is a pressing problem. Without investigating the rest of the cultural influences involved, there might just as easily be capable and potentially interested men out there missing their calling to not be engineers. Or perhaps (as I suspect) both genders should be engineers more often than men are, or more rarely than women are.
Discrimination based on real group average characteristics is a kind of externality within groups. Observers choose which groups to notice, then the behaviour of those in the groups alters the overall reputation of the group. We mostly blame those who choose the groups for this, not those who externalize within them. But if we somehow stopped thinking in terms of any groups other than the whole population, the externality would still exist, you just wouldn’t notice it because it would be amongst all humans equally. If someone cheated you, you you would expect all people to cheat you a little more, whereas now you may notice the cheater’s other characteristics and put most of the increased expectation on similar people, such as Lebanese people or men.
Does this perspective change where to lay blame for the harm caused by such discrimination? A bit, if the point of blame is to change behaviour. Changing the behaviour of the category makers is still useful, though we probably try to change them in the wrong direction sometimes. But another option is to deal with the externalities in the usual fashion: subsidise positive externalities and tax negative ones. This is done via social pressure within some groups. Families often use such a system, thus the derision given for ‘bringing shame to the family’, along with the rewards of giving parents something to accidentally mention to their friends. Similar is seen in schools and teams sometimes I think, and in the occasional accusation ‘you give x a bad name!’, though that is often made by someone outside the group. I haven’t heard of it done much in many other groups or via money rather than social pressure. Are there more such examples?
One reason it is hard to enforce accountability for such externalities is that boundaries of groups are often quite unclear, and people near the edge feel unfairly treated if they fall on the more costly side. The less clear is the group boundary the more people are near the edge. Plus people toward the edge might only be seen as in the group a quarter of the time or something, so they aren’t externalizing or being externalized to so much. Families are a relatively clearly bounded group, so it is easier for them to punish and reward effects on family reputation. Gender is a relatively clear boundary too (far from completely clear, but more so than ‘tall people’), so I would expect this to work better there. Could women coordinate to improve the reputation of women in general by disrespecting the ones who complain too much for instance? Should they?
Of course in a few areas making one group look better just makes another group look worse, so if all the externalities were internalized things would look just as they are. I don’t think this is usually the case, or the entire case.