Post by Mark N
Frankly, I'm shocked to see your casual acceptance of habits of thought
that I think are obviously...um...unhealthy, to put it mildly. You are
defending *tribalism*!! I really don't know what to say. You have me at
a loss for words. I'm still hoping that maybe I'm misunderstanding you
somehow! (And it's weird, too, because this is an issue that
"conservatives" usually seem to be pretty good on. Go figure.)
Well, I'm tilting Left this week, that must be it. Seriously, though,
this is just an application of a related point that I've seen economists
make (not that that would please anyone here either)--the theory of
rational ignorance: information-processing itself involves costs.
Consider, for example, me. Awhile back, opining was going on about Iran
policy. So I ran out and read Pollack's _Persian Paradox_ cover to
cover, thought carefully about it, came to some tentative conclusions.
But I'm an academic, which means I have time on my hands like a retired
person, without being a retired person (and I have a higher than average
IQ). So for me the costs of getting a really well informed opinion about
something outside my area of expertise is "sustainable." I can do this.
I suspect that you are much the same way, though frankly, no one reads
like the Agent reads. You should just see my nightstand.
But if you poke around outside this strata of privilege and
wonderfulness and talent into what is mistakenly called "the real world"
what you find are greatly circumscribed resources (by comparison) for
doing this sort of thing. I mean, around the time that I was thinking
about Iran, I probably knew as much about Iran as anyone, save an
Iranian or a professor of Middle Eastern Studies. But that's not the
situation of a person of average intelligence who has to work for a
living, hug the kids in the evening and mow the lawns on the weekend.
What that person does is become aware of the issues that make the most
noise (looking for quiet issues is probably costly and likely to
generate minimal return on cognitive investment---what's your view on EU
fisheries policy? I know mine), and then he makes a cost/benefit
analysis of how much trouble to invest in figuring the thing out. It's
not rational to try to build the opinion from scratch any more than to
build a car from scratch. So you defer to expert opinion to some extent.
Ah, there's the rub. *Which* expert? So there have to be ways of making
*that* decision rationally which are more cost-effective than simply
figuring out what all of your own opinions are on everything and then
selecting experts on the basis of prior agreement with what you already
think (in which case you don't need them anyway). In a world of rational
ignorance, there's also rational guesswork.
Picking representatives who will make decisions for you based on your
interests is like that too. If you are rational, you will focus on all
the factors you can afford to discover information about that are
germane to the representative's likely behavior. Some of that will be
about how *morally* reliable they are (you don't send someone to pick up
something of value for you who has been known to run off with things in
just such situations). But you also want to know how much their model of
your interests is likely to track your actual interests. Broad
psychological similarities do that. And in a representation situation
where the representative has really broad powers to deal with a wide
range of issues, some of which are unpredictable, a *rational* decision
will have to fall back more and more on considerations other than (1)
what he says he'll do or (2) what they've always done (if per hypothesis
the situation is unprecedented).
[I can't help but mention Bush again. I voted Bush in 2000 on the basis
of ideology. My wife voted against him on the basis of his experience of
privilege, apparent feelings of inferiority, his former alcoholism and
the religious basis of his recovery. As she explained it, someone like
that is likely to make bad choices based on "getting religion"
metaphorically speaking, about issues that seemed meaningful to them,
and persist in the teeth of evidence that a wrong choice was made, out
of loyalty to the perceived higher cause and defiance of criticism. I
thought at the time that this was a silly emotional way to pick a
president, and of course she was absolutely right and I was absolutely
So this is the question. As a rational decision maker, you are granting
huge powers to someone, with minimal ability to recall them in the short
run, to act on what they regard as your interests, in situations that
may be unprecedented.
My question is, is allowing (defeasible, possibly wrong) evidence of
psychological similarity to play a role in that sort of decision
*irrational*? Only if (1) there is no causal connection between
psychological similarity and action, or (2) that there's no way to
discover psychological similarity, or (3) THERE'S A BETTER METHOD AT
Your response, minus the rhetoric about tribalism, is presumably some
combination of all three. I think much of what you've said hinges on #3.
But it's pretty effing plausible that in all kinds of situations, there
So really the debate between us comes down to an *empirical* question. I
take it that you are saying that my imaginary voter is being
*irrational* by ignoring all kinds of evidence of complex psychological
facts (that could be discerned by reading the candidate's policy papers,
his past record, etc.) that can be assessed, and instead giving into the
Dark Side of the Force by hearkening to earthy/creepy feelings of
communal oneness on the basis of irrelevant characteristics. I on the
other hand am characterizing the imaginary voter as rationally weighing
information processing costs in a situation of enormous complexity and
uncertainty, and seeking at least moderately reliable proxies for
desired behavior in the representative. I'm not *defending* "tribalism."
I'm expressing skepticism about its very existence, and a la
Freakonomics, bringing an area of apparent irrationality within the
orbit of rational choice models, in an attempt to better understand
them. And that's not so very terrible, is it?
I could make almost exactly the same point about voting Party tickets
instead of voting ethnicity. One could respond much the same way you
did, by saying that that's politicism, a particularly nasty form of
tribalism. I have days when Party preferences strike me exactly that
way. But the fact is that I nonetheless vote Party anyway (though I've
been wondering of late which party that should be!). I assume that
someone who self-presents as a Republican will raise my taxes more
slowly than someone who self-represents as a Democrat. But isn't that,
on your account, POLITICAL STEREOTYPING? Shouldn't I spend a few months
with them, psychoanalyze them, before I jump to any conclusions? Well, I
can't. In the meantime, there's an election coming up, and I must decide
what to do about it.
Post by Mark N
Coop, I'm not talking about looking for an "alternative" to voting for a
human being, fer Rand's sake! It's *understood* that one votes for human
beings! The issue is, should one judge the human beings in question as
*individuals*, or as members of some "racial group" or "ethnic group"? I
know how *I* answer that question!
Perhaps you're assuming that the preceding analysis means that ethnicity
is the *only* indicator such a sub-Agent voter looks at or would look
at? But I mentioned several such indicators, including former
profession, nor am I suggesting that one should *ignore* readily
available and easy to interpret information of other kinds. For example,
up until recently, many voters drew all sorts of inferences from
McCain's military record (now some draw other inferences, or perhaps
preferences have shifted). That's another indicator.
Are such methods fool-proof? Nothing ever is. But when you factor in the
information processing costs and resources available to the
decision-maker, giving them some weight may be rational. If that freaks
you out, I really don't know what to say. I take back all the little
teases though, because I honestly think you haven't thought this through
enough, partly because your own epistemic situation (which resembles
mine, if I'm not mistaken) makes it difficult for you to imagine other
people with far fewer epistemic resources (time, energy, access to
information, perceived stake, intelligence) than you have, and partly
because you have a *model* of what decision-making that reflects group
affiliations is about (the giving in the the dark side comment above).
But as the excellent scientist I know that you are, just remember that
your tribalism model is just that: merely a model. My rational choice
with scarce information processing model is also merely a model. One way
to test which model is more accurate is to see if in situations where a
person makes a decision that looks facially tribal, if the decision
changes when the stakes go way way up, and the information processing
costs go way way down. At that point, if the person says "you know, I've
examined this problem with great care, and clearly the best choice is X,
who happens to be the 'wrong' ethnicity for me. But I am overcome with
irrational feelings of sympathy and antipathy on the basis of ethnicity,
and this tsunami of craziness has overpowered my volition, leading me to
choose on the basis of ethnicity the way a shark goes after the smell of
blood." If *I'm* right, in the *changed* situation, they'll say "ya
know, usually I feel more comfortable with people like myself, but this
guy looks really good, and after a lot of thought, I think I'll go with
Extra credit question: if African-Americans prefer Hillary to Obama in
significant numbers (which I predict), which thing did they do?