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Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

It should be recognized that most people are stupid about most things; myself included. However, there is a certain lack of self-critical thinking I want to pick on at this moment, and I am going to call this mode of thought the “Preference Fallacy.” I will define it as this: the dissonance that inheres in what people say they prefer to be the case, and what they signal and/or choose to be the case by their actions. I’m noting that this is not some broad form of hypocrisy, since it is not so much someone saying “People shouldn’t do this” and then they go do it, but rather they say something like “This should be the case,” yet they do nothing of themselves to achieve that. Note how I say that it is of themselves, a very specific distinction I make for political cases, where the Preference Fallacy crops up very often.

Consider this image, which I have seen several times and which certainly has been seen by others:

What is meant to be illustrated? First, there is the bare fact that wealth distribution is unequal. That’s a given, and anybody with a brain recognizes that attempts to “reduce inequality” will inevitably lead to wealth destruction. I’m not going to hammer on that point. The other thing meant to be illustrated is this quaint notion many individuals seem to hold that “distribution should be equaler.” Why? Well, just because, but I’m going to challenge exactly this stated preference, since it not only fails to reflect reality (not a shortcoming of any preference in itself) and is beside the point, but because people don’t actually behave like this is the ideal. In fact, attempts to behave in order to fulfill this stated preference clearly, by demonstrated preference, would cost people what they prefer more. As such, this “stated preference” essentially doesn’t matter.

Here is a thought experiment. Equalitarian Edward states that he would prefer for society to be more equal. He insists that he behaves in accordance with this preference whenever he can. However, as we observe his behavior in the market, we see that this stated preference informs his decisions not at all. Who does he choose to buy his car from? Subaru, thereby increasing the profit of the company and by extension to a larger degree its owners, as opposed to the employees. Why does he buy a Subaru? Because he prefers its comfort, reliability, and style. He chooses not to buy the beater from Poverty Pam, even though doing so would help decrease wealth inequality, since now his money is going not to those who are already wealthy but to someone who is poor.

Where does Edward buy his groceries? The bulk come from Cub Foods, because it is most convenient, they have a wide selection, and the prices are cheaper. Once again, he passes over Pam. Likewise for where he buys his coffee (Starbucks), his clothes (JCPenney’s and assorted boutiques), his books (Amazon), his internet (Charter), his cell phone (Apple) and service (Verizon), so on and so forth, virtually every purchase of his lines the pockets of the wealthier more than those who are less wealthy. What seems a better explanation of his behavior, that he has a preference for lessening wealth inequality or increasing it? Between only those two options, the latter seems clearly to be the case.

But but but, you will certainly say, there are other explanations! And I say that is certainly the case! I don’t actually think he has a preference for increasing wealth inequality so much as he simply prefers better quality and service in his purchases, and it just so happens that this has a high degree of correlation to increasing the wealth of the wealthier. It is not that he has a preference for increasing wealth inequality, only that he doesn’t really have a preference either way. If it so happens that buying from a person who is poorer gives him a better quality good, he will do so; but that the person was poor won’t affect his decision so much as the product itself. In the market, people choose products, not people.

So what are we to make of the “ideal” distribution of wealth shown in the above graph? Precisely nothing. The demonstrated preferences of people in the market happens to support more wealth inequality rather than less. (Caveat: I say that it supports the present distribution only because the American society happens to have capitalistic elements. More accurately, the USA has a distributed socialist-corporatist economy with capitalistic elements peppered here and there. I’m not pretending a full-fledged capitalism won’t have “huge” wealth inequality, though I do believe the “true measures of wealth” would in fact be more equal. For an elaboration on my views here, read my paper.)

I understand that some who remain sold on the intrinsic good of “equaler wealth distribution” would like to point to other problems, say that while a company like Subaru might choose to disproportionately give its profit to the owners and elite controllers of the company, it shouldn’t. It just so happens that people don’t have a lot of say about how the companies they buy from are structured. To this, I would point out that this just pushes the Preference Fallacy back another step. Sure, one might state they have a preference for “more equally distributed profits” within a company, but once again, the business models that happen to correlate most with the products they prefer for itself are these companies where the CEO’s pay is many hundreds time that of the average worker within that company. I think distributists are especially prone to this way of thinking, and all my ire to them where that is concerned.

So I’ve chosen in particular the issue of economic inequality for my focus of the fallacy, but it certainly occurs throughout just about everything people say they prefer. Women say they prefer Nice Guys, but they run off with Bad Boys. People say they prefer the minimum wage higher, but they still shop around for cheaper prices and don’t tip those people who do work minimum wage (honestly, have you ever seen someone tip the cashier at McDonald’s?). They want men and women to have equal pay, yet (like the issue of business models) they consistently support those models in which women are paid less. (I’m not going to explain this one: here’s a video which deals with it in short order.)

There are so many things people say they prefer to be the case, but they won’t help to establish that for themselves. Sure, they might be a political activist, but note that the introduction of the power of the state to cure problems doesn’t count as exercising one’s own preferences but penalizing and prohibiting the preferences of others.

Don’t look to what people say, look at what they do. There is nearly always some degree of bullshit in what people say they prefer. This bullshit is the Preference Fallacy.

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It is simply a truth of human psychology that we are biased towards what we can directly observe. It is this bias for what is directly observed that leads us into supporting broken window fallacies and other examples of government waste. Though I think this same bias tends to surface in philosophical reasoning as well, with an emphasis on the material kind of existence in our understanding of existence as a basic mode of being and the like. For now I’ll focus on its economic prevalence.

The broken window fallacy is engaged in at least two different ways. The first is the classical story set up by Frederic Bastiat, in which the parable goes that

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation—”It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade—that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs—I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.

This is more or less Bastiat’s attempt to call to attention this psychological bias present in human rationalizing behavior. In this first instance, we see that the crowd of onlookers tried to rationalize the loss of the window by saying it would “stimulate the economy,” more or less But what we don’t see is that, had the resources and labor in this economy not needed to be put toward the production of a new window, the society would have had more than it now has. So the broken window is what it really is; a loss. It happens to be good for the glazier, who fills the need of producing new windows, but a society which didn’t need to devote so many resources to glazing windows would ultimately have more.

As I suggest we must individually reason about the economy, which situation would you prefer. The first in which, after you finish making a table, the table is immediately destroyed, and if you wish to have a table, you must expend the same amount of time and resources as you did on the first. Or, would you rather have two tables, or one table and two chairs? For in the first instance we see that we put forth an unnecessary amount of effort and resources than needed to be spent in order to obtain a single table. Thus, we see that, in reality, we have more if we don’t have to put forward more effort and resources to have the same amount of stuff. In fact, we’re able to enjoy a higher standard of living if it doesn’t take as much time and effort; that is, if we don’t have to set aside as many resources as a society to something in order to obtain the same amount of goods and services.

What we find is that, if we properly affix our mind with the purpose of understanding what makes living standards better for individuals, we understand that seen benefits for some person or group do not translate into a better standard of living for the whole. In fact, one’s benefits could come at the loss of society in general, if you compare that individual’s benefit at the expense of others to the ability of foregoing that expense.

Take my dictum that “Every lawyer represents a broken window.” What I mean by this is that all lawyers represent a net loss to society, in that they are something we must, as a society, dedicate our time and resources towards. For some lawyers pursue frivolous lawsuits that prove to be a waste of time, and some lawyers serve as the defense or prosecution of criminals who, were they not committing crimes, society would have more as a whole. So, as it is, lawyers are like glaziers in Bastiat’s broken window example. They happen to benefit due to expenses on society due to criminals that lead to prosecution by courts, criminal negligence that leads to lawsuits, and so on. Not that I think society should ban lawyers from existing, for they do still serve to mitigate other expenses, i.e. that of injustice. I am only saying that it would be better if the necessity of lawyers didn’t exist; or, it would be like saying that it would be better if society could go without a police force. But as it is, criminals gonna crime, so we need a police force and lawyers and the courts and all that.

I think that our bias for the seen over the unseen is especially poignant when you consider government jobs. For even if the job is a bridge to nowhere, it is impossible to deny that some people have jobs and are thus able to feed their family. That is, at least, what we see. What is not seen is that, if a bridge to nowhere wasn’t built, society would be free to utilize those resources and labor for other projects, and would probably utilize those resources for things which serve to benefit society as a whole much more. So if we compare the present situation of a bridge to nowhere to the situation in which it wasn’t built, we should understand that the latter is a more prosperous one. Hence my general antagonism towards public works and public jobs. On the whole, they represent losses in terms of opportunity cost compared to other foregone opportunities.

Though this does also provide an excellent argument against war. War, as I’ve elsewhere noted, represents nothing but a net loss to society. All the labor and resources dedicated to fighting a war result in the destruction of lives, products, and resources. Steel used to make battleships gets sunk to the bottom of the ocean, where it will never be recovered and is lost to society. Men are killed, who will not ever get to work and bring positive attention to loved ones. Economically, war is futile.

In the next part, I’ll focus on the bias of sight in philosophical argumentation.

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As I’ve pointed out before, some People Just Aren’t Interested. They do not care to know the truth; they care to “get through life,” or so they say, and give little pause for considerations on what seems merely obscure, speculative, possibly interesting for thought, but not “useful” (but always, of course, without questioning why they believe that something is “useful”).

There is a certain bellicose variant of the Indifferent I wish to speak about. This is the type that like to argue their point, but do not have much patience for anyone who disagrees. While they might not technically suffer any defects in the etiquette of debate (i.e. refraining from just outright saying they think their opponent is stupid), the very methodology they bring into a discussion is misguided. Rather than seeking to bring forth and weigh evidence for and against the truthfulness and meaning of certain propositions, they seek to establish a particular proposition without any intent of letting the opposing case be made. Perhaps they do not mean it intentionally when they do so, but they rely on certain shallow and easily defused reductios of their opponent’s position that stem mostly from a misunderstanding. They tend to accept any argument in favor of their own case as good enough to utilize, and jump on any little mistake, substantial or cosmetic or even just perceived, of their opponent without a forgiveness for being human.

The Bellicose Indifferent are the liberals who take comfort in the fact that George W. Bush was a poor speaker. Or they are the atheists who like to group in all religious adherents with the most extreme and distorted sects, no matter how tenuous and insubstantial the connection. They could be creationists who analyze all proven scientific hoaxes in depth but ignore all the valid evidence in favor of evolution. Even Protestants who diarrhetically quote Scripture at Catholics without asking why Catholics have a different interpretation or how they view the Bible’s subsistence within Christianity fall into this same group. Lastly, just those people who defend their assertions with a “It’s what I was taught to believe” while they are mad at you for asking questions are the most egregious example.

My point is that bellicose indifference is not helpful. It isn’t useful. It might, perhaps, offer some psychological reassurance, to prevent doubts from creeping in that upsets our neat and tidy worldviews. But this is just a confirmation bias that seeks to strengthen our prejudices. While we perhaps are all guilty of it, noticing it in our own behavior and trying to overcome it by taking the role of our opponent, and understanding their reasons for believing what they do, can help to make our decisions more rational and informed. At best, leaving such a weakness in our evaluation of the truth could produce blind spots even we, in our best intentions, cannot see, causing us to overestimate the strength of some case or the best interpretation of some evidence.

Ah, a human trying to reason.

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