Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why Not Uniqueness?

First, check out the comments on my recent post about uniqueness, in which I was (rightfully) ripped to shreds. It is wonderful to have such a critical readership! What Brian's critique suggests is that humans, when they want to be unique (which is often), tend to do so in a particular way that most other animals do not. That is, humans are more likely to share major beliefs with others in their immediate group, in order to signal their loyalty, and instead try to differentiate their group from other groups. He's mostly right and I was lazy to write that in the first place. Also in the comments, Justin asks "what's so bad about uniqueness"? Bingo responds basically as I would (must be in the DNA), but in the next three paragraphs I'll expand a bit on that. 

Betting on horse races is systematically biased such that longshots are overbet and the favorites are underbet. There are many explanations for this, but I think the best is that the bettors, who are typically also spectators, prefer to have their "own horse" that they in particular can root for. Similarly, participants in the intellectual sphere like to have their own "horse" in any ongoing subject of conversation, in part because it allows them to signal their uniqueness, and in part because it is simply more fun (these two parts are probably correlated). This implies that the marketplace of ideas, much like the horse betting market, is likewise systematically biased; "favorites" or obvious ideas are not valued as highly as they ought to be. So the key reason intellectual uniqueness (or intellectual hipsterdom) is bad is because it diffuses our focus from the most important questions and problems.

One key question: is informing people about this phenomenon likely to change their behavior? Probably not. Think of hipsters. Every hipster knows that hipsters are generally annoying, and most hipsters are personally annoyed by other hipsters, but this stops almost no one from acting in their self-interest and being hipster-ish themselves. So this is probably a dead end.

What we can do is make rating systems that quantify and rank, as precisely as possible, the various options in each of the idea spheres. This way people can talk all they like about their particular "horses" in the intellectual marketplace, but when it comes time to make important decisions, we can rely upon the ratings rather than these uniqueness-biased discussions. (A prediction market is an example of a rating system, and when possible to set up these tend to perform the best. But they are not always feasible to set up, so we should consider other options too.) Figuring out how to set up rating systems to answer important questions, and how to incentivize idea consumers to actually rate things in such systems, seem like key questions, and they are questions this blog will continue to track closely.