Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cognative Dissonance

There are lots of ideas and concepts from psychology that I wish more people knew about.  I was reading the first post of a new blog recently, and I was struck by a thought.  The post talked about two propositions that were both pretty reasonable, but were seldom both believed by the same person because they had different implications for policy.  Someone only believing one or the other could go about their lives believing that their actions were perfect and had no downsides, but believing both meant that you would have to live with having made a trade off, whatever you did.  It occurred to me that this was a perfect example of what a psychologist would call Cognitive Dissonance and that since situations like this were so common that the human bias towards trying to resolve cognitive dissonance by changing one's beliefs was actually more problematic than I'd thought.

So what is cognitive dissonance?  Well, its when you have two beliefs that, when combined, make you feel bad so you try to resolve the bad feeling by changing your beliefs.  Take the famous Aesop's Fable about the fox and the grapes.  The fox sees some grapes hanging up high and thinks "Mmm, tasty".  He tries to get the grapes but he isn't able to jump high enough.  Torn by the ideas that the grapes were tasty and that he wasn't able to have the grapes, he decides that the grapes were probably sour.

"But Andrew!" someone knowledgeable about psychology may object, "isn't this effect well known?  Like since the 50s?  Why are you going on about something so basic and so well studied?"

Well, partially the reason is that I didn't appreciate the full significance of the idea until recently.  And partially I expect that many of the readers here won't have run into the idea before either.  Also, its always useful to be reminded about these things because it can be really hard to avoid them.  Recently I was involved in a debate about whether it was useful for people to learn about the law, or whether it was impossible to learn enough law to guarantee that you would never unknowingly commit a crime.  Of course, said like that its pretty easy to see that there's no contradiction, but none us participating saw that clearly enough to bring it up.

The easiest place to see this if you're looking is in politics, where people's intense desire to associate with a group is strongest.  A lot of political disagreement boils down to values, like whether we should have gay marriage or not, but a lot is still bound up in factual questions about the consequences of various decisions, like how we should regulate banks.  In the later case you should normally expect that there'll be consequences that are both good and bad to any policy decision, and if you find yourself thinking that the evidence goes all one way or all the other way that's a good sign that your probably deluding yourself.  It's ok to think that the benefits are lopsided, that happens, but you should be able to admit that some of your opponents points are valid without feeling the need to stretch your creativity to deny every last one.

Complexity and Democracy

Its always seemed to me that complexity is one of the greatest impediments to good government.  This might just be my bias as someone who's studied computer science but not law, but it seems that the two have a lot in common in that you're writing down instructions to be followed in a variety of situations, and the more rules you create the less well you'll be able to predict the consequences of any change, since there are so many possible interactions.  That's a very general critique, though, and thankfully the fact that so many of the pages of law that Congress generates each year are special cases or exemptions means that any two pieces have less chance of interacting than you might suspect at first glance.

But I'm not writing this post to talk about complexity and lawmaking in general, I'm here to talk about complexity and democracy, and the special challenges you get in a democratic system when the system of laws becomes more complex.

On one hand you have the ability of voters to oversee the activities of their representatives.  There are arguments that voter ignorance is a big concern, but I think I've been convinced by Bryan Caplan that this isn't actually as much of a problem as it might seem at first.  You could argue that complexity makes it easier for people to hold on to their preferences over beliefs, since the more complex things are the easier it is to find isolated incidents that support any prejudice.  On the other hand, the world is a big and complicated place already, even without laws, and I'm not sure that complex laws have much effect here.  A more compelling argument is that public debate and discussion can help people overcome their prejudices, but the more topics of debate there are the shallower an argument they'll here from the other side, and the more different arguments there are from their own political side there are to distract them.

A deeper problem, though, is that more and more complex laws make it harder for even well meaning representatives to draft good laws in the first place.  I remember how ignorant of technology most of the people in the SOPA hearings seemed, but would I seem any less ignorant if forced to talk about legal matters?  Or take farming.  Like a good little neo-liberal I think that we ought to get rid of farm subsidies, but how would that work in practice?  I know very little about the actual financial workings of farms, and if I were to try something clever on my own beyond a slow linear phaseout, I'd risk breaking things.  It might be that corn subsidies could be gotten rid of immediately but soy subsidies couldn't, but how could I know that?  I'd have to have detailed knowledge of the farm industry, and that could only come from an expert - either a lobbyist or someone I'd hired myself.

Lobbyists seem to be, in practice, the way our representatives go about getting information about what laws they ought to pass and what should be in them.  I think I have more sympathy for the legislators in this than most people - Hollywood is very good at sucking money out of the rest of the world and bringing it to the US.  I try to have a cosmopolitan outlook and so I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing (though it isn't a bad thing either).  However, I also know that that's not how my fellow citizens feel, so I feel a certain sympathy when legislators want to do things to make Hollywood better at sucking money into the US.  And so when Hollywood lobbyists come forward with plans for how the US could rake in even more money from abroad, legislators listen.  The problem, of course, is that Hollywood mostly only thinks about Hollywood and that as a consequence you'd expect the information being provided would be very one sided, even in the if the Hollywood lobbyists were someone interested in doing what's right for the country.  And I'm pretty sure that Hollywood lobbyists are interested in doing what's right for Hollywood, not for the whole country.

In theory you have lobbyists from every industry and interest group in Congress, so Google say could have met with various Legislators and explained why SOPA was a bad deal.  In practice, it seems that Google's lobbyists weren't as good at figuring out what was going on behind the scenes, figuring out who they had to meet with, and then persuading them of their viewpoints.  I suspect that a lot of that has to do with the fact that the various media companies have been doing this for decades, and have had more time to create personal relationships with the various people that matter.  So you have an inbuilt bias in the system towards old companies and industries.  You also have a bias towards more centralized industries, because figuring out who pays for the lobbying is a classic hard coordination problem.  And though you have lobbyist groups for things that aren't industries, they tend to be at an even greater disadvantage in the coordination game.

All of the above isn't to say that this is the only way in which lobbyists exert an influence on politics.  It isn't.  But this is possibly the most significant one.

The obvious alternative to relying on lobbyists for technical information would be for Congress to hire experts themselves.  Unfortunately, this isn't done because most people in Congress are eager to not be seen spending "taxpayer money" on themselves.  I think I'll have to write another post on that in the future, because I have a lot to say and I've already wandered pretty far afield here.

It seems to me that a good way to help deal with these problem would be to try to simplify things as much as feasible.  This doesn't mean "shrinking government" in the way that Republicans politicians are always harping about.  They focus on the size of government in terms of dollars whereas I'm trying to talk about the size in terms of number of laws or maybe number of pages of laws.  If you can wrap up a dozen financial transfers into a single new program, that might be a big win in terms of complexity of government even though the size of the budget remains the same.  There is also the problem that there are many ways in which you can turn a government expenditure into a law saying someone has to accomplish what the expense would.  These are usually more expensive to society as a whole and have costs which fall in less fair ways than a simple expenditure.  Unfortunately, thinking about shrinking government in terms of reducing the size of the budget leads to these sorts of laws.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...