Tag Archives: value

How the abstraction shield works

All kinds of psychological distance make things seem less important, presumably because they usually are. So it’s better for bad things to seem distant and good things to seem close.

Do we only modify importance in response to distance, or do we change our perception of distance in order to manipulate our perception of importance? This article suggests the latter is true: people view things they don’t want to be guilty of as further back in time:

Germans (but not Canadians) judged the Holocaust to be more subjectively remote in time when they read only about German-perpetrated atrocities than when this threat was mitigated. Greater subjective distance predicted lower collective guilt, which, in turn, predicted less willingness to make amends (Study 1). Distancing under threat was more pronounced among defensive Germans who felt unjustly blamed by other nations (Study 2). In Study 3, the authors examined the causal role of subjective time. Nondefensive Germans induced to view the Holocaust as closer reported more collective guilt and willingness to compensate. In contrast, defensive Germans reported less collective guilt after the closeness induction. Taken together, the studies demonstrate that how past wrongs are psychologically situated in time can play a powerful role in people’s present-day reactions to them.

That defensive Germans thought the Holocaust was earliest than either the innocent Canadians, or the more guilty and more guilt accepting Germans implies that the effect is probably not related to how bad the guilt is, but rather how much a person would like to avoid it.

Psychological distance also alters whether we think in near or far mode and our thinking mode alters our perception of distance.  So if we want to feel distant from bad things we could benefit from thinking about them more abstractly and good things more concretely (as abstraction triggers far mode and concreteness near mode). Do we do this?

Yes. Euphemisms are usually abstract references to bad things, and it is often rude not to use them. We certainly try to think of death abstractly, in terms of higher meanings rather than the messy nature of the event. At funerals we hide the body and talk about values. Admissions and apologies are often made abstractly, e.g. ‘I made a mistake’ rather than ‘I shouldn’t have spent my afternoons having sex with Elise’. We mostly talk about sex abstractly, and while it is not bad it is also not something people want to be near when uninvolved. Menstruation is referred to abstractly (wrong time of the month, ladies’ issues etc). Calling meat ‘dead animal’ or even ‘cow’ is a clear attempt to inflict guilt on the diner.

Some of these things may be thought of abstractly because people object to their details (what their friend looks like having sex) without objecting to the whole thing (the knowledge that their friend has sex), rather than because they want to be distant especially. However then the question remains why they would approve of an abstract thing but not its details, and the answer could be the same (considering what your friend looks like having sex is too much like being there).

On the other hand we keep detailed photographs of people and places we like, collect detailed knowledge of the lives of celebrities we wish we were close to, and plan out every moment of weddings and sometimes holidays months in advance.

It’s otherwise unclear to me why concrete language about bad things should be more offensive or hurtful often than abstract language, though obviously it is. People are aware of the equivalence of the concepts, so how can one be worse? I think the answer is that abstract language forces the listener psychologically close to the content, which automatically makes it feel important to them, which is a harm if the thing you are referring to is bad. It is offensive in the same way that holding poo in front of someone’s face is meaner than pointing it out to them across a field.

You might be population too

I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.

I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.

But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences. Continue reading

Dignity

Dignity is apparently big in parts of ethics, particularly as a reason to stop others doing anything ‘unnatural’ regarding their bodies, such as selling their organs, modifying themselves or reproducing in unusual ways. Dignity apparently belongs to you except that you aren’t allowed to sell it or renounce it. Nobody who finds it important seems keen to give it a precise meaning. So I wondered if there was some definition floating around that would sensibly warrant the claims that dignity is important and is imperiled by futuristic behaviours.

These are the ones I came across variations on often:

The state or quality of being worthy of respect

An innate moral worthiness, often considered specific to homo sapiens.

Being respected by other people is sure handy, but so are all the other things we trade off against one another at our own whims. Money is great too for instance, but it’s no sin to diminish your wealth. Plus plenty of things people already do make other people respect them less, without anyone thinking there’s some ethical case for banning them. Where are the papers condemning being employed as a cleaner, making jokes that aren’t very funny, or drunkenly revealing your embarrassing desires? The mere act of failing to become well read and stylishly dressed is an affront to your personal dignity.

This may seem silly; surely when people argue about dignity in ethics they are talking about the other, higher definition – the innate worthiness that humans have, not some concrete fact about how others treat you. Apparently not though. When people discuss organ donation for instance, there is no increased likelihood of ceasing to be human and losing whatever dollop of inherent worth that comes with it during the operation just because cash was exchanged. Just plain old risk that people will think ill of you if you sell yourself.

The second definition, if it innately applies to humans without consideration for their characteristics, is presumably harder to lose. It’s also impossible to use. How you are treated by people is determined by what those people think of you.  You can have as much immeasurable innate worthiness as you like; you will still be spat on if people disagree with reality, which they probably will with no faculties for perceiving innate moral values. Reality doesn’t offer any perks to being inherently worthy either. So why care if you have this kind of dignity, even if you think such a thing exists?

What is hope?

At first it seems like a mixture of desire and belief in a possibility. It’s not just desire because you can ‘have your hopes too high’, though the hoped for outcome is well worthy of desire, or ‘abandon hope’ when something reaches some level of unlikelihood. But hope is also not linked to a particular level of chance. It implies uncertainty about the outcome, but nothing beyond that.

Is it a mixture of significant uncertainty and a valuable outcome then? No, you can consider something plausible and wonderful, but not worth hoping for. Sometimes it is worse to hope for the most marvelous things. No matter how likely, folks ‘don’t want to get their hopes up’ or ‘can’t bear to hope’ .

So there is apparently a cost to hoping. Hopes can bring you unhappiness if they fail, while another possibility with similar chances and desirability which was not hoped for would cause no distress. So hope is to do with something other than value or likelihood.

A hope sounds like a goal which you can’t necessarily influence then. Failing in a goal is worse than failing in something you did not intend to achieve. A hope or a goal seems to be particular point in outcome space where you will be extra happy if it is reached or surpassed and extra unhappy otherwise. We seem to choose goals according to a trade-off of ease and desirability, which is reminiscent of our seemingly choosing hopes according to likelihood and desirability. Unlike hopes though, we pretty much always try harder for goals when the potential gains are big. This probably makes sense; trying harder at a goal increases the likelihood of success, whereas hoping more does not, yet still gives you the larger misery of failure.

Why hope at all then? Why not just have smooth utility functions? Goals help direct actions, which is extremely handy. Hopes seem to be outcomes you cheer for from the sidelines. Is this useful at all? Is it just a side effect of having goals? Is it so we can show others what would be our goals if we had the power? In which case should we expect declared hopes to be less honest than declared goals? Why are hopes so ubiquitous?

Subconscious stalking?

Just seeing another person look at something can tend to make you like it a bit more than if you see them looking in another direction:

In this study, we found that objects that are looked at by other people are liked more than objects that do not receive the attention of other people (Experiment 1). This suggests that observing averted gaze can have an impact on the affective appraisals of objects in the environment. This liking effect was absent when an arrow was used to cue attention (Experiment 2). This underlines the importance of other people’s interactions with objects for generating our own impressions of such stimuli in the world.

The authors suggest this is because people really do tend to look at things more if they like them, and that another person likes something is information about its value. This makes sense, and even more if we assume that the ancestral environment contained fewer eye catching people paid to prominently give items their attention.

Is observing the eye movement of others an earlier version of facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Is observing the eye movement of others a precursor to facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Another possibility though is that people want to have coinciding tastes to those around them often, so we are not so much interested in clues to the item’s inherent value, but directly in the other person’s values. In that case if we evolved nicely we would react more to some people looking than to others.

Sure enough, this study found that such an effect seems to hold for attractive people, but not unattractive:

In a conditioning paradigm, novel objects were associated with either attractive or unattractive female faces, either displaying direct or averted gaze. An affective priming task showed more positive automatic evaluations of objects that were paired with attractive faces with direct gaze than attractive faces with averted gaze and unattractive faces, irrespective of gaze direction. Participants’ self-reported desire for the objects matched the affective priming data.

Added: These days we can discover (and adapt to) many people’s likes and dislikes prior to meeting them extensively, as long as they post them all over Facebook or the like. If the tendency to coordinate our values based on minor cues was good enough to evolve, does the possibility of doing so much more effectively via online stalking give a selective advantage to those who use it?