By Kevin Simler
The root cause of irrationality is social incentives, and that the best way to improve beliefs is to attack epistemic cronyism at the root, by teaching rationality and critical thinking to everyone.
- Summary Notes
- The idea that beliefs are like employees is not perfect, but it's a good way to think about it.
- Beliefs need to provide accurate information to be useful.
- Beliefs can be hired for the wrong reasons.
- Social incentives can distort our beliefs.
- Our brains use crony beliefs to posture.
- We use crony beliefs to blend in, stick out, suck up, show off, or cheerlead.
- Differences in how merit beliefs and crony beliefs are treated by the brain
- There are bad-faith incentives for certain beliefs
The idea that beliefs are like employees is not perfect, but it's a good way to think about it.
"Employees are hired because they have a job to do, i.e., to help the company accomplish its goals. But employees don't come for free: they have to earn their keep by being useful."
Employees are hired to help a company achieve its goals, but they need to actually be helpful in order to keep their jobs. In other words, if an employee is not doing their job well, they will be fired. This is analogous to how beliefs in the brain are "hired" by the brain in order to provide accurate information about the world. If a belief is not providing accurate information, it will be "fired" by the brain.
"Similarly, we can think about beliefs as ideas that have been 'hired' by the brain. And we hire them because they have a 'job' to do, which is to provide accurate information about the world."
We believe things because we think they will help us understand the world better. We want our beliefs to give us accurate information so that we can make good decisions and avoid danger.
"Suppose Acme has just decided to hire the mayor's nephew Robert as a business analyst. Robert isn't even remotely qualified for the role, but it's nevertheless in Acme's interests to hire him. He'll 'earn his keep' not by doing good work, but by keeping the mayor off the company's back."
Companies sometimes need to hire unqualified people in order to keep the peace with local politicians. In this example, the company (Acme) is hiring someone (Robert) solely because he has connections to the mayor. They don't expect Robert to actually do any work; his only purpose is to keep the mayor happy.
"And so we can roughly (with caveats we'll discuss in a moment) divide our beliefs into merit beliefs and crony beliefs. Both contribute to our bottom line — survival and reproduction — but they do so in different ways: merit beliefs by helping us navigate the world, crony beliefs by helping us look good."
There are two different types of beliefs that contribute to our survival and reproduction: those that help us navigate the world (merit beliefs), and those that help us look good to others (crony beliefs). It's important to note that both types of beliefs can be useful in different ways, and that neither is necessarily better than the other. However, the quote does suggest that we should be aware of the potential for social incentives to distort our beliefs, and that we should be careful to examine our beliefs carefully to ensure that they are accurate.
Beliefs need to provide accurate information to be useful.
"The way he moves through the company is strange, as if he's governed by different rules, measured by a different yardstick."
This quote suggests that Robert, the mayor's nephew, is not being held to the same standards as other employees at Acme Corp. He is being given special treatment and is not being held accountable for his poor performance. This is because he is a crony of the city council, and the company wants to keep the mayor happy.
"In other words, just like Acme, the human brain has to strike an awkward balance between two different reward systems: meritocracy, where we monitor beliefs for accuracy out of fear that we'll stumble by acting on a false belief; and cronyism, where we don't care about accuracy so much as whether our beliefs make the right impressions on others."
Humans have a difficult time distinguishing between what they should believe in order to get ahead in life, and what they should believe in order to be accurate. There is a lot of pressure to believe things that will make us look good to others, even if those beliefs are not accurate.
"Everywhere we turn, we face pressure to adopt crony beliefs."
We are constantly being pressured to believe things that may not be accurate, in order to appease others or fit in. Our brain is designed to seek out information that will be beneficial to us, and sometimes this means adopting beliefs that may not be true, but which will help us in some way.
Beliefs can be hired for the wrong reasons.
"Even mild incentives, however, can still exert pressure on our beliefs."
Even small incentives can influence our beliefs. For example, if we're at a picnic and we share an unpopular opinion, we may be treated differently by the people around us. This can pressure us into changing our beliefs to something that is more socially acceptable.
"I contend that the best way to understand all the crazy beliefs out there — aliens, conspiracies, and all the rest — is to analyze them as crony beliefs."
Many of the beliefs that people hold are not based on evidence or reality, but rather on social or political factors. That is, people may believe in something because it is popular or because it will make them look good, even if there is no evidence to support it.
Social incentives can distort our beliefs.
"We need to know where the lions hang out (so we can avoid them), which plants are edible or poisonous (so we can eat the right ones), and who's romantically available (so we know whom to flirt with)."
According to the author, we adopt beliefs in order to help us survive and reproduced. Specifically, we need accurate information about the world in order to make decisions that will keep us safe from harm and help us find mates. However, they note that our beliefs are often shaped by social and political incentives, rather than by a desire for accuracy. This can lead to beliefs that are not based in reality, but which serve to make us look good to others.
Our brains use crony beliefs to posture.
"In other words, we use crony beliefs to posture."
We use our beliefs to influence other people, rather than just responding to information objectively. We might adopt beliefs that are popular or fashionable in order to fit in, or believe things that flatter those in power in order to get ahead. Sometimes we might also believe things that we know are not true, simply because we want other people to believe them too.
"Often it's useful to avoid drawing attention to ourselves; as Voltaire said, 'It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.'"
It can be dangerous to have beliefs that go against what the majority believes, or what the authorities have said. It's often better to just blend in, and not stand out too much.
"Being a yes-man or –woman, or otherwise adopting beliefs that flatter those with power, is an established tactic for cozying up to authority figures."
People will often adopt beliefs that make them look good in front of authority figures, in order to try to get closer to them. This is sometimes called "sucking up" and is a way of trying to make oneself more appealing to those in power.
"It's also important to remember that we have many different audiences to posture and perform in front of."
We often have to adjust our beliefs to fit the situation, depending on who we are around and what we want to achieve. For example, we might believe one thing around our friends, and something different around our family. We might also use our beliefs to signal our intelligence or to show off our independence.
We use crony beliefs to blend in, stick out, suck up, show off, or cheerlead.
"Over-the-top self-confidence, for example, seems dangerous as a private merit belief, but makes perfect sense as a crony belief, if expressing it inspires others to have confidence in you."
It can be beneficial to have confidence even if it’s not based on merit, in order to influence others. This is because other people are more likely to have confidence in you if you appear to be confident in yourself.
"I contend that social incentives are the root of all our biggest thinking errors."
Our brains are wired to respond to social incentives, which can often lead us to believe things that may not be true. Our brains evolved to help us survive and thrive in social groups, and so we often adopt beliefs that will help us achieve our goals in those groups. This can sometimes lead us to ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs, or to downplay the importance of truth in favor of beliefs that will make us more popular or respected.
Differences in how merit beliefs and crony beliefs are treated by the brain
"What distinguishes the two concepts is how we're rewarded for them: via effective actions or via social impressions."
The difference between a merit belief and a crony belief is how we are rewarded for holding them. With a merit belief, we are rewarded for holding it if it leads to effective action - that is, if it is a true belief that leads us to do something that is successful. With a crony belief, on the other hand, we are rewarded simply for holding the belief, regardless of whether it is true or not.
"The best we can say is that merit beliefs are more likely to be true."
Although we can't say for certain that merit beliefs are true, we can say that they're more likely to be true than crony beliefs. This is because, in a meritocracy, beliefs are rewarded based on how well they help us to effectively model and navigate the world.
"Crony beliefs, on the other hand, get an entirely different treatment."
Crony beliefs are not held to the same standards as merit beliefs. While merit beliefs need to be accurate in order to be useful, crony beliefs only need to appear to be true in order to serve their purpose. This means that people are more likely to be protective of their crony beliefs, and less likely to be open to criticism or questioning.
"Since we mostly don't care whether they're making accurate predictions, we have little need to seek out criticism for them."
This quote is saying that we tend not to care whether our crony beliefs are accurate, and as a result, we don't bother seeking out criticism of them. This is because crony beliefs are designed to mimic ordinary, merit-based beliefs, and so we don't want to question them too closely for fear of disrupting the status quo.
"The trick, then, is to look for differences in how merit beliefs and crony beliefs are treated by the brain."
It can be difficult to tell which of our beliefs are crony beliefs, because they often mimic ordinary merit beliefs. However, our brains usually know which beliefs are cronies, because they need to be protected in order for them to survive in a meritocracy. Therefore, we can look for differences in how merit beliefs and crony beliefs are treated by the brain in order to identify crony beliefs.
"From first principles, we should expect ordinary beliefs to be treated with level-headed pragmatism."
We should expect beliefs that are based on merit (i.e. beliefs that have been proven to be accurate through effective actions) to be treated with more pragmatism than beliefs that are based on cronyism (i.e. beliefs that are based on social impressions and favoritism rather than effective actions). In other words, we should try to question and critically examine beliefs that we’re protective of, precisely because those beliefs are likely based on cronyism rather than merit.
"As Karl Popper and (more recently) David Deutsch have argued, knowledge can't exist without criticism."
In order for us to have accurate knowledge, we must be willing to critique our beliefs and accept that some of them may be wrong. Without this willingness to change our beliefs in the face of new evidence, we will never progress in our understanding of the world.
There are bad-faith incentives for certain beliefs
"What makes for a crony belief is how we're rewarded for it."
This quote is saying that beliefs become crony when we are rewarded for them, regardless of whether those beliefs are true or false. In other words, our beliefs about things like climate change are often motivated more by what other people will think of us than by a genuine desire to find out the truth.
"And the problem with beliefs about climate change is that we have no way to act on them — by which I mean there are no actions we can take whose payoffs (for us as individuals) depend on whether our beliefs are true or false."
Our beliefs about climate change don't matter, because we can't do anything personally to affect the climate in any visible way. Our beliefs only matter to other people, who judge us based on what we believe and say.
"Meanwhile, we take plenty of social kickbacks for these beliefs, in the form of the (hopefully favorable) judgments others make when we profess them. In other words, they're all cronies."
When we profess our beliefs to others, we are often rewarded with their favorable judgments. In other words, our beliefs are often nothing more than "cronies" - things that we believe only because of the social benefits we receive from doing so.
"The problem with this approach is that it addresses the symptom (irrationality) without addressing the root cause (social incentives)."
Merely trying to improve critical thinking skills in individuals, without also addressing the social incentives that lead to crony beliefs, is not likely to be effective. The root cause of epistemic cronyism is the way we are judged by others for our beliefs, and this is something that needs to be addressed in order to create better incentives for accurate beliefs.