Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Eleven Fringe Ideas of 2009

There are a bunch of ideas kicking around in my cell phone's memos section that haven't yet made it onto AMTB. In the interest of entering 2010 with a "clean slate", I'm going to aggregate them here:

1) What does it mean to be good "on paper"? In job or school apps it means that you have an impressive resume but lack traits that are difficult to quantify, like interpersonal skills. In sports it means that a team has lots of big names but they either lack chemistry or are mostly past their primes. In "life," it means that you've got it all but for some reason still aren't satisfied. Being good "on paper" is especially troubling because it means that you'll consistently lose the expectation game.

2) Do self-serving biases make the world go round? One couple's experience in marriage therapy, as described in the NYT here, suggests that there may be some validity to my aphorism.

3) Similar to how you are more likely to see 1's than other digits in nature, you are more likely to see people starting than finishing books on airplanes. When I start books on airplanes I worry that my fellow passengers will assume that I am some nublar, which encourages me to plow through and get to a respectable page number quickly.

4) Would raising the speed limit and saying that you'll actually ticket people accomplish the laudable goal of allowing people to drive with the traffic and not break the limit? Or would it merely shift the equilibrium up?

5) Let's assume that people are bound to have status competitions over something. This is a reasonable assumption based on, say, the entire written record of humans in groups. If that's true, then competition over who can give the most to charity would be a good way of channeling this tendency and should be encouraged. I can see two plausible ways of doing so: a) Banning anonymous donations so that there is no expectation of or mechanism for counter-signaling, and b) Contractually delineating each family's donations each year in the local paper, possibly as a percentage of overall income.

6) Are micro delusions necessary for the self-serving bias as a whole? Meaning, is it possible to have clear eyes on a micro level but happily self-serving on a macro level? The evidence tentatively points to no: Clinically depressed people, who have the lowest group averages of self-serving biases, are less likely to fall victim to trivial delusions. Eek!

7) For 2008 one of my NYR's was to read 50 books. Full transperency: I only read 45. It's OK though, I still love myself. :)

8) Advice givers should be more cognisant of the shelf-life of their advice. That means communicating how long what they say will be relevant for, and the possibility that the world may have already changed since their first-hand experiences.

9) Eliezer Yudkowsky's line: "True dissent doesn't feel like going to school wearing all black, it feels like going to school wearing a clown suit." This would get its own quote of the day post, if I were lame enough to do that kind of stuff.

10) The less likely a phenomenon is to occur, the less likely it is that multiple factors contributed to it. This statement is true if the relevant factors are completely independent, but as the factors become more and more correlated the statement becomes less and less true. Those two sentences explain the various reactions to the 2008 meltdown very well, in my opinion.

11) Are young people really more able to change their mind? Via a blog comment on EconLog, Robin Hanson told Bryan Caplan that he was too old to change his mind about philosophy. Specifically he said, "People are a lot more impressionable about such things when young, which you aren't anymore." I'd love to see some data. A Psychological Science article mentions that, "adult learners often struggle to acquire any level of proficiency in a second language... constraints on L2 acquisition... have been hypothesized to result from a biologically sensitive period for language learning." But, the authors don't offer any data-oriented citations and anyway language learning is a specific skill, not necessarily relevant to the plasticity of opinions in general. If this is indeed a myth, it's a pervasive and dangerous one. And if it's not a myth, it seems to be an important trend to openly acknowledge.