Saturday, January 17, 2015

What citizens may need to understand about democracy

I have been applying for grants that so far I do not get, but I have summarized the idea that I want to test, so I am putting the gist of it here, extracted from the last proposal submitted (in collaboration with David Rand at Yale).

Democracy is a human invention, a "design" that serves certain functions. But citizens do not understand it very well, and, as a result, they often fail collectively to take full advantage of what it can do. Here is what many people don't understand.

Political participation is cost-ineffective in advancing self-interest or the parochial interest of a small group, but is cost-effective in advancing the common good. The small influence that each citizen has over policy outcomes renders political participation nearly useless as a way of advancing self-interest (Downs, 1957). But this small influence is more than compensated by the large number of people potentially affected by these outcomes, if the citizen has sufficient concern for these others (Edlin, Gelman \& Kaplan, 2007, 2008). In terms of self-interest the expected benefit of a vote is proportional to 1/N, where N is the number of voters. But in a utilitarian calculation, which assumes some altruism (concern for others), the benefit of voting must be multiplied by N, assuming that only voters are affected by the outcome.  This multiplication cancels the dilution caused by being one voter among N. And the total benefit can be orders of magnitude larger if we think in terms of effects on those who do not vote, such as children, foreigners, and future people who do not exist. The larger the circle we consider, the more the effect of a vote is magnified, and, therefore, the more worthwhile it is to use ones vote (or other forms of participation) to advance our concerns for the good of others.

Imagine you are faced with a conflict. You believe that a proposal would be good for the world but bad for you. Should you vote for it or against it? Of course it depends on how good it is for the world and how bad it is for you. But even if it is very bad for you it is unlikely to be worth your time to vote against it, because the probability is very low that your vote would matter. On the other side, if it is reasonably good for the world, it would affect many people, and that could make it worthwhile to vote for it, if you care somewhat about all those people.

The same sort of conflict arises between self and nation, or nation and world, or present and future. "Nation" is an in-between case. But a proposal that harms your nation a little but helps the world a lot would still be worth voting for, again because the numbers matter. In many cases what is good for your nation is also good for the world. Nationalism, in which people promote the good of their nation regardless of the harm done to outsiders, is a form of parochialism.

Moreover, because government can coerce people to cooperate (behave in ways that benefit everyone rather than the self alone), the cost of supporting government in doing this, by voting, is much smaller than the cost of cooperating voluntarily. Because of this principle, people often vote to give government the power to make them and others do what they would not be willing to do if left to their own devices. For example, voters sometimes vote for tax increases but almost never donate money to the government.

If citizens around the world understood these arguments, they would still disagree on what constitutes the common good, but surely some of the current malfunctions of democracy could be mitigated.

The idea that government is a design to provide for the common good by solving social dilemmas (or providing public goods) is not widely understood; some people seem to think that government sanctions are never justified (except perhaps for military defense and property protection), or that government is a tool to be used for competition between parochial groups.

The idea that democratic government is a design to serve the common good should not be difficult to understand. Thus, failures of understanding can be attributed to failures of education.

It is apparent to anyone who follows the news that the idea of democracy is not on a smooth path to universal approval and success in bringing about the benefits of good government. The economic successes of some authoritarian countries (such as China) have given many people the idea that democracy is unnecessary, when, in fact, these are probably isolated lucky cases, contradicting the general result. A better understanding of how democracy works could lead at least to a little healthy skepticism about whether such authoritarian governments can continue to produce good results, or, alternatively, whether they will increasingly attempt simply to maintain power, whatever the costs.

Many countries seem unable to switch from authoritarian to democratic system, and this problem is often attributed in part to the necessity of cultural support for the idea of democracy itself. Part of this support may consist of the kind of understanding described here, in particular the idea that the obligation of a citizen is to help advance national interest rather than tribal interest or self-interest. (The potential conflict between national interest and world interest is not at issue here, since the formation of stable democracy in a nation is almost always in the world interest as well.)

Even long-standing and stable democracies seem unable to make democracy work as well as it should, as a result of such problems as polarization and "populism". Part of the substance of polarized conflicts involve understanding of what government can accomplish and why it is needed, and understanding of the limits of parochialism. And populism often involves a different sort of narrowness, namely, excessive attention to immediate effects at the expense of long-term effects.

Increased understanding of democracy could be the low-hanging fruit in attempts to improve the human condition by improving the functioning of government. If it results in changes in civics education, these are relatively inexpensive. Possibly the failures of democracy are the result of misunderstandings of how democracy should work, and correcting these misunderstandings even in a minority of citizens can have substantial effects on outcomes. Note that civics education does not happen only in schools but also in efforts at ``nation building'' through instruction and outreach, and through political communication more generally.


Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2007). Voting as a rational choice: Why and how people vote to improve the well-being of others. Rationality and Society, 19, 293–314.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2008). Vote for charity's sake. The Economists’ Voice, 5, (6), article 6.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The report on torture used by the CIA

An NPR interview  this morning made two interesting points about the recent report on torture by the CIA, the first of which I had thought of myself.  This was that it is possible that some authors of the report, or perhaps just those who summarize it, are engaging in belief overkill. They are saying that the extreme methods of interrogation never did any good. They don't need to say this. They could just say, more cautiously, that the amount of good done was so small as not to justify the use of these methods. Belief overkill is the distortion of beliefs so that all conflict disappears and no arguments oppose the favored conclusion, even if the conflict would be easy to resolve.

The second point, made in passing, was that it may in fact be impossible to find a case in which the extreme methods led the CIA from ignorance to certainty all at once. But intelligence does not work like this. It is all about probabilities. (The interview did not use this term, but it was implied.) If a confession extracted under extreme pressure changed the probability of some conclusion, such as an immanent attack or the presence of a terrorist at some location, the probability may change enough to warrant a change in plans. Such changes could happen if a confession agreed, or disagreed, with other evidence already available.

Given the possibility that probabilities were affected, the difficulty of claiming that these methods "never mattered at all" seems to increase. Again, this claim is not needed. The methods are bad in themselves and in the precedents they set for others.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks

The following (slightly revised) was a letter to the Public Editor of the New York Times, written on 9/15/2014.

I was upset at the Times's coverage of foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks such as Brookings. I was reminded of this by the recent edition of The Economist, which points out how attacking these institutions for accepting contributions could make it seem more acceptable when authoritarian regimes elsewhere try to block contributions to NGOs that might threaten them (p. 20, Sept 13-19 edition).

As one letter pointed out, most of these think tanks do not hide the sources of their funds. It would be bad if they did that, but they don't. Beyond this, I do not see what is the least bit wrong with accepting foreign contributions.

1. U.S. policy has major effects on foreigners. Why should they not be    able to try to make sure that we at least know about such effects?    We ought to consider them more than we do. If the foreign    contributions do succeed in bringing different points of view to    attention of U.S. citizens and government, just what is so bad    about that? Are we supposed to set policy without considering such    effects? As a citizen and voter, I certainly do not think this    way, and I am not in a tiny minority on this point.

2. It would be at least a little hypocritical for the U.S. to get up    on a high horse about government funding of private institutions in    other countries, including NGOs. The U.S. government has done this    for decades, and, I believe, still does it. (And I don't see    anything wrong with what we do either.)

3. The Times articles hinted that the conclusions of research    organizations are influenced by their funding. I have seen several    denials of this, and I believe that the culture of places like    Brookings is against such influence. But, as a professor in a major    research university with much the same culture, I can see that such    influence happens, in subtle ways. And it is not the least bit    limited to foreign sources. (I have received grants from Israel,    and I do not feel any pressure at all to conform to policies of the    Israeli government, although perhaps the probability that I would    participate in an academic boycott of Israel has gone from .01 to    .001.) The U.S. government itself has distorted research in major    ways. Right now it is engaged in a massive campaign to boost    biological research at the expense of traditional psychology, which    I think is a mistake. In my own field, partly as a result of this    shift, most research is now supported by the Templeton Foundation,    which has as its ultimate purpose the rapprochement of religion and    science. The topics it supports are limited to those that can be    shoe-horned into this framework, so I and some of my colleagues    have learned to speak a certain way, in order to get money from    them. (Of course, they too have been flexible in choosing topics    that would not offend atheists too much, lest they offend 90% of    the research audience they are trying to reach.) I could go on with    story after story about how research has been distorted by    influences of this sort, including large amounts of money from    corporations such as Exxon. But is it even distortion? or is this    the way science is supposed to work, with inputs from consumers as    well as producers? In sum, I don't see why foreign influences are    being singled out as distortions of research, when they are in    essence a drop in the bucket.

4. Many of the "foreign interests" mentioned struck me as extremely    odd. Apparently Norway gives money to Brookings, and this is    supposed to be in support of Norway's government policies. I do not    know which policies are at issue here, but Norway is a tiny country    with probably the most enlightened policies in the world concerning    the alleviation of world poverty and protection of the    environment. Yes, they have oil, but they know it is running out. I    find it difficult to believe that the money they give to Brookings    is in hopes that Brookings will release a report favoring off-shore    drilling off the Norwegian coast. The drilling is a done deal. More    likely, Norway contributes to Brookings in hopes that it will help    solve some environmental problem.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Isolation effect in world problems

This column by Thomas Friedman reminded me of an issue that has been on my mind for a while, the inter-relatedness of world problems. I discussed it in the book for which this blog is named, especially the chapter on population.

The world today has a long list of inter-related problems: food, fresh water, energy production, biodiversity, rising oceans from higher temperatures (resulting in shrinking coastal lands where many people live), health, unemployment of the young, catastrophic risks from technology, armed conflict, poverty, over-population, and antagonism against migrants. These problems compete. Efforts to reduce global warming with clean energy require land for wind farms and solar. Biofuels compete with agriculture. Rising oceans lead to migration.

Many people concerned with these problems view them in isolation. Some groups are concerned with food. Others with biodiversity. Others with energy. Here is an example.

This isolation of problems closes off the possibility of solving some problems as a side-effect of solving others. It may be more efficient to solve the problem of immigration than to prevent the rise of the oceans. It may be easier to reduce the growth of population than to exploit more energy, after some point in doing the latter. The idea that each problem requires its own solution is much like the fixed-pie bias in negotiation, where people tend to negotiate one issue at a time rather than look for trade-offs among issues.

When problems are isolated, the focus on one makes all the others seem uncontrollable, out of the picture. Discussions of food and water always begin with the point that population growth is going to cause problems, but then they view population growth as something that is uncontrollable.

In fact, it would be relatively cheap to simply meed women's unmet demand for birth control, as a start. Other steps, only slightly more costly, such as improving the education of girls, would reduce desired family size. Part of the problem is religion. It is opposition from the religious right that prevents the U.S. government from spending more on international family planning, for example. The idea of promoting birth control has become so politically incorrect that even the organizations that do it, such as Engender health, do not emphasize it in public.

This is just one example. When problems are interrelated, the solution to any one of them helps all the others, and the search for efficient solutions should take this into account.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Political disputes about abortion usually involve repetitions of bad arguments, empty slogans, and upsetting images. The assumption seems to be that reason is irrelevant and the important thing is to motivate those who are already convinced. It is as if everyone has accepted the theory that moral reasoning is post-hoc rationalization and that moral disputes in are intellectually no different from sports events in which fans cheer for one side or the other.

Here is a very brief summary of the argument for abortion, drawing heavily on the work of Peter Singer (especially in "Practical ethics"). The point is that reasoning is relevant. (I discuss relevant issues at greater length elsewhere, particularly here.)

Abortion is indeed killing, but that does not settle the issue. Nor does it settle the issue to say that the fetus is "human", since this still begs the question of when and why it is wrong to kill a human. The following reasons come to mind:

First, killing a fetus is a harm to the parents if the fetus is wanted. This is an issue only if the abortion is disputed by (for example) the father. Usually this is not an issue, and is surely not the issue that riles the anti-abortion movement. When relevant, it is a family dispute.

Second, the means of death can be painful. This is possibly an issue for late-term abortions, when the pain system is developed. The solution would be anesthesia for the fetus. The same argument would apply to the killing of animals. This too seems beside the point most of the time.

Third, abortion prevents a stream of future experiences for the person who would be born. On balance these experiences will probably be positive, relative to not having them at all. This argument applies to animals as well as people. It applies to any choice that prevents a person (or animal) from existing, not just abortion but also birth control and abstinence from sex. Carried to the limit, it would amount to a command to "be fruitful and multiply", until we reach the point where the world is so crowded that the totality of negative experiences resulting from an additional person was as great as the totality of positive ones. (Derek Parfit discusses this issue at length in "Reasons and persons".)

Although this argument is interesting, I do not see why we should accept it. If we go one step back and ask why experiences are valued, we find that they are valued because people want them. That is, people have goals or wants for having good experiences (and, presumably, so do animals). So, when we create a person, we are in essence creating goals (or wants) and then satisfying them. But, if the goals do not yet exist, why is it a requirement of morality or rationality to create them just so that they could be satisfied.

For example, why are you obliged to inculcate in me a taste for contemporary pop music? Even if it is true that, once I had the goal of listing to pop music, I would get positive experiences from listing to such music, it is possible that I do not want that goal. It might be inconsistent with my other goals. The Golden Rule thus implies that you have no particular obligation to create goals in me, because I may not want those goals. Nor is it necessarily rational for me to create such a goal or taste in myself. Whether I should do this depends on my other goals.

We have no moral obligation to create beings just so that we can satisfy the goals that come into existence. The Golden Rule does not apply here because the "others" in "do unto others" do not exist. It is the goals of those who exist that determine whether it is rational or moral to create new goals.

A final issue is potential. It is true that a fetus is a potential adult human. So is every sperm-egg pair, and it is hard to see why their physical joining together is relevant to the argument concerning potential. It is just a salient step in the pathway. But the argument from potential raises the same questions as argument from experience. It is not clear why it is moral or rational to create new people and new goals, if doing so is inconsistent with our current goals.

Some of our current goals, in fact, may imply that limiting births is a good thing. We want humans to have good lives once they come to exist. They have goals and wants then. (Of course, we also want enough of them to insure the long-term survival of humanity, but, arguably, long-term survival is more likely if the rate of population growth is slower than it is now.) We want particular children to have good lives. If we are going to limit family size, then we want to time the bearing of children so that they will be maximally wanted when they arrive, and maximally likely to develop well.

If this sounds like an argument for "abortion as a method of birth control", it is. But it does not imply that abortion is just as good as any other method of birth control. Clearly abortion has many disadvantages, including emotional effects. But these do not make it worse than no birth control at all. And often, as in the case of fetuses with serious genetic impairments, pregnancy complications, or failure of other methods, abortion is not the method of choice, but a fall-back.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is the act-omission distinction strategic? Comment on DeScioli et al. (2011).

In the current (March 22?) issue of Psychological Science, DeScioli et al. report a nice demonstration of how people take punishment into account in choosing how they will go about hurting someone else.*

In the main study, subjects could divide a dollar as (90,10), (10,90), or (85,0). The first number represents the divider's outcome, and the second represents another person's outcome, in cents. The (85,0) condition was the result of letting a timer run out, hence doing nothing. The (90,10) and (10,90) conditions were explicit choices.

The main result was the subjects often chose (90,10) when they did not expect to be punished by anyone, but they chose (85,0) much more when they knew that they could be punished by a third party.

The authors explain this result in terms of the difference between acts and omissions. They consider the (85,0) response to be an omission. Punishment for (85,0) was (demonstrably) less than for (90,10), and third-party punishers did think that the (90,10) option was worse. (Interestingly, the victims did not make a distinction, but the paper correctly points out that they may have been focusing more on outcomes than on the morality of the choice; such a focus would be consistent with the findings of Cushman et al. (2009).)

They go on to conclude that the bias toward harmful omissions over equally (or less) harmful acts could result from anticipation of punishment and thus be, in some sense, rational.

I have several problems with the conclusions. First, the (85,0) option probably differs from the (90,10) option not just in being an omission but also in being seen as less intentional. Letting a timer time out could result from inattention, confusion, or difficulty in deciding what to do. To the extent to which a harmful choice is unintentional, it should not be punished as severely (by any account, including the utilitarian accounts that DeScioli et al. dispute -- it is, after all, less deterrable if it is an accident). Thus, the choice of letting the timer time out could be understood as obfuscating the intent to gain at someone else's expense, rather than as an omission. The experiments had no manipulation check for equality of intention. By contrast, Spranca et al. (1991), which DeScioli et al. cite as an example of what they are going against, took great pains to show that intention was equated between acts and omissions, so that they could truly conclude that the perceived moral difference between acts and omissions could not be explained in terms of a normatively correct distinction based on intention. Thus, the experiments may have nothing to do with the act/omission distinction in its pure form, with intention equated. When I have made normative arguments about the moral relevance of the act-omission distinction, the pure form is the only relevant one. We know nothing, yet, about whether the distinction that people make in this form is influenced by anticipation of punishment.

On the other hand, the claim that omission bias in general could be explained by anticipation of punishment is roundly refuted by many examples, including those cited by DeScioli et al., yet ignored in their discussion. For example, several of those papers show omission bias (my word for the distinction) in vaccination decisions, where, in fact, punishment is more likely for the omission, not vaccinating, than the act. In other cases, it is clear that punishment is out of the question because the intent to do harm would not be detected, and the possibility of punishment is not mentioned (just as in the control condition of DeScioli et al.).

Note that DeScioli et al. cannot test for a bias in the absence of punishment, because their "omission" condition (85,0) is actually worse for both people affected, thus failing to equate the two conditions.

The penultimate paragraph says: "Our experiments are relevant to a broader issue about how traditional normative theories are used in psychology. Previous work labeled the omission effect as a bias because people’s decisions violated normative theories. Although normative theories can be useful for applications such as policy making, the present work illustrates an important limitation. By measuring performance against normative theories, researchers misleadingly label strategic decision making—choosing in a way that takes into account how other people will respond—as error (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994; DeScioli & Kurzban, in press). This mischaracterization can preclude deeper investigation into the highly organized mental processes that regulate decisions in strategic environments."

Now let us suppose (putting aside the above problems) that the paper had supported its empirical claim that the distinction between acts and omissions in choice was entirely the result of differences in anticipated punishment. So there is no bias in choice. But there is still a bias in third-party judgments. Can those too be explained as strategic? I don't see how, without assuming some bias somewhere in the system.

*I am commenting here because Psychological Science does not publish critiques of this sort.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Political extremism and my-side bias

The recent shootings in Tucson have called attention to the lack of civility in politics, and the use of intemperate rhetoric, especially by right-wing politicians and media personalities, sometimes to the point of advocating violence ("second amendment remedies" Sharron Angle). One more culprit should be mentioned: my-side bias.

My-side bias is a group of psychological processes that defend beliefs and choices against arguments on the other side. These processes include selective exposure (failing to look for information that might impugn the belief, then behaving is if no such information exists), and biased assimilation (responding to positive evidence by strengthening the belief but not also responding to negative evidence by weakening it). They lead to such phenomena as "belief overkill", in which people think that no argument exists for the other side. Thus, opponents of the health care bill are not content to point to its costs as sufficient reason to reject it; they must also convince themselves that it will not improve anyone's access to care. The same about those who oppose regulation of carbon dioxide emissions: while it might be sufficient for them to argue that the cost of regulation is too great, they also convince themselves that global warming does not exist or that people cannot control it.

People differ in the extent of these biases. At least part of the differences seem to be the result of different ideologies about how beliefs should be formed and maintained. Some people believe that self-questioning is a kind of disloyalty or betrayal. Others take the attitude of science and other modern scholarship, which is that beliefs must be open to challenge and that modifying them in response to challenges is the only way to approximate truth. (Hence the public confusion about scientists who are skeptical of what other scientists believe. People see this as a weakness rather than as a necessary part of science itself.) Some religions actually teach people not to question, and the resulting attitudes toward thought itself may help maintain adherence to these religions. Because of these differences in ideology, it may be difficult to reform education to put more emphasis on the opposite of my-side bias, which has been called "actively open-minded thinking".

The extreme example of my-side bias is paranoia. Paranoid thinking seeks evidence for delusional beliefs and rejects evidence against them. The extremeness of paranoid thinking may not be a category, distinct from how many "sane" people think. It may just be one end of a continuum. Closer to the extreme are those commentators and politicians who are now being discussed. Thus my-side bias is at work even when we can write off assassins as mad.

I agree with those commentators who say that this paranoid style is not always limited to the political right, although it does seem to be there now. I remember in the 1960s when many people I knew, mostly students, thought that a left-wing revolution in the U.S. was immanent. I thought to myself, "Don't these people ever get out of their holes and go talk to their relatives and neighbors back home?" They may have even done so, but they didn't listen or hear. I now think the same about whether opponents of the health-care bill ever talk to anyone who is excluded from health care because of a pre-existing condition.

A good bumper sticker for the times: "Don't believe everything you think."