Wednesday, March 29, 2017

If you care about divisiveness, don't argue about motives

I read a lot about people concerned with our "divisive" political culture in this country (the U.S.).  This is particularly interesting because it is almost always used as a criticism.  One almost never hears someone say that his own party is deepening the political divisions in the country; it is always the other side.  In other words, the problem of divisiveness is used in a divisive way.

It may seem natural that people would see the other side as the source of the problem, but compare this to issues like military armament.  It is not difficult to find people urging unilateral disarmament on their own governments, as though the military problem would disappear if one side had no way to defend itself.  On the other hand, I have yet to hear someone urge his party or faction to stop using divisive language even if the other side continues to take advantage of it.  Arguably this was the tack Hilary Clinton was taking in her presidential campaign when she repeatedly said, "When they go low, you go high."  But it is not unifying language to point out that you are not going to stoop to the level of your opponents.

As long as we continue to batter our political opponents with accusations of insincerity, hypocrisy, and dirty tactics, the situation is not going to get any better.  These traits are used as justification for insulting language, which then gives the opponents justification for ramping up their attacks, and so on ad nauseam.  I am not sure that "divisiveness" itself is a serious problem, but I am certain that believing your opponents are acting in bad faith is one.  Once you believe that the other side is putting forward policies only for certain political interests rather than for the good of the country, the whole basis for having a public debate disappears.  Why debate with someone who isn't arguing in good faith?  If their arguments are just a ruse to distract listeners from the illicit gains to be made by some special interest, there is no need to engage those arguments.  Besides, it's a lot easier to win an argument by "poisoning the well" -- claiming that your opponent's motives are bad -- rather than by dealing with the issues he raises.  This leads to both sides talking past each other, raising arguments that the other side never takes seriously.

If you truly care about divisiveness, then, the worst thing you can do is to make your opponents' motives into your central point.  Argue against their ideas, not their motivations.  After all, even if their motivations are not sincere (and almost certainly some will be just as some will not be), their arguments still deserve to be addressed on the merits.  If I make a completely insincere argument that you have no answer for, it is still a strong argument.  If I am just putting up a smokescreen to cover my interests, you ought to be able to blow my arguments away with a gust of wind.  If the wind blows and you find my arguments still standing, I may have a point worth considering.  You will sometimes see committees appoint a devil's advocate to argue the contrary position when everyone believe that a certain action is the right one.  No one thinks that the devil's advocate believes his arguments outweigh the others, but is important to think of all the possible consequences before taking a decision.  Otherwise, a committee, or a nation, is inclined to rush into something in the heat of the moment without giving it full thought.  Think of your opponents as serving a useful purpose in highlighting the best counterarguments.  Address them.  And, by taking them seriously, force your opponents to defend them seriously.  As you argue about the issue, you will be building a political culture and defeating divisiveness.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unending Desire

I mean the title of this post to convey the idea that humans are never satisfied; each time one desire is quenched, another arises, so we are in a constant state of anticipation.  My thoughts came in direct response to what I read in Schopenhauer, and, by projection, to the general Buddhist approach to psychology.  I was surprised to find that a Google search on "human desire is never satisfied" actually brought back mainly Christian sites, chiefly in reference to Proverbs 27:20:  "Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied" (KJV).  Not that it should be surprising that this subject is present in Christianity as in other religions and philosophies.  In fact, the nature of human longing is central to any study of man.  It is what I think of as the problem of motivation, which indicates that I approach it largely from the other direction:  how to convince myself or someone else to do something, not how to deal with the fact that I always want things that I don't have.  The subject of just about any human science seems to boil down to this, which Ludwig von Mises expressed in his masterpiece's title as "Human Action."  His way of approaching motivation was to say that humans act to "remove unease," which I find as good a description as any, although probably incomplete.

In any case, everyone agrees that humans are never satisfied.  In Buddhism in particular, desire is not only a problem but the central problem, because unfulfilled desire is the source of unhappiness.  The unique solution in Buddhism is not to direct or limit desire, but to extinguish it altogether.  Schopenhauer, who claims to have reached his philosophy independently (without prior knowledge of Buddhism), expounds at great length on the way that desire inherently means conflict.  He also argues that desire never ends, because the satisfaction of one desire is always followed immediately by the arousal of another one.  Moreover, if one great desire is quenched, we pay more attention to the lesser ones, so that they end up causing the same anxiety.  It is a sort of law of conservation of desire (or, more accurately, of frustration).

It is this last part that I want to take issue with.  It seems plausible enough, especially if we think of human action in Misian terms as the removal of unease:  if we act at all, there must be some deficit in our satisfaction; and since we almost always act, we must be constantly unsatisfied.  What I recently realized, though, is that this description of the problem is like Zeno's paradox.  Zeno told the story of Achilles and the tortoise in a footrace.  If Achilles gave the tortoise a head start, he could never catch up.  You see, first he would have to make up half the distance between himself and the tortoise, and during that time the tortoise would have moved forward; then he would have to make up half the distance again, during which time the tortoise would have moved further ahead.  You can repeat these steps infinitely, but Achilles will always have halfway to go, so he will never pass the tortoise.

We know intuitively that this is nonsense (even though, if I understand correctly, Zeno was actually trying to prove that motion is impossible), but why?  Because we are slicing time into ever smaller amounts to leave Achilles behind.  And while it might appear that this can continue indefinitely, we now know that infinitely dividing something eventually converges, so that time will continue to pass and Achilles will eventually catch up with and pass the tortoise.

The problem of desire is quite different, but it makes the same fundamental mistake about time.  Let's say you eat breakfast at 8 a.m.  At noon, you eat lunch again.  Who is going to say, "Look at that guy!  He just ate four hours ago, and now he's eating again!"  That wouldn't make much sense, because we know that humans need to eat every few hours to have enough energy to keep going.  The fact that you ate in the morning has pretty much no relevance to it; you are bound to be hungry again several hours later unless perhaps you stuffed yourself well beyond what you needed.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you felt completely at ease?  Some time when everything seemed right:  you didn't want anything, you had no outstanding anxieties, you just felt at peace.  Chances are that a short time later -- five minutes or five hours or (if you were extremely lucky) five days -- you no longer had the same feeling.  Does that mean that you created things to worry about?  Well, it could.  We all know that people who get rich often turn out very unhappy.  They thought that money would solve all their problems, and they were wrong.  But the error there was in thinking that everything was perfect, not that they had to create problems for themselves as a matter of human nature.  The fact is, even after you get money, you still have to go on living.  You may not have any monetary needs, but you still have other needs, such as someone to love and something to occupy your time.  Money is notoriously bad at solving those problems.  If you feel at peace for a while because all of your immediate problems are solved, that doesn't mean that you won't face new issues in the future.  In particular, the intangible things related to our minds, such as finding and keeping friends, remain forever.  They even become more difficult, in some respects, if you have money, although the difficulties are of a very different type than if you are poor.  Still, I don't see how we can doubt that a person who has come into money may have had some great burdens lifted, and may feel quite at peace for a time.  He may have his personal issues resolved for the time being, and his monetary issues resolved perhaps for the first time ever.  If he thinks he will never suffer again, he is naive; but if he thinks that things are good at that moment, he is quite right and has ever reason to feel it with satisfaction.  That does not mean that he may not get in a quarrel with his spouse later that day and be miserable, but neither does the quarrel mean that his previous peace was not real.  It was, but he has to go on living, has to go on fulfilling his psychological needs just as his physical needs.  It makes no more sense to criticize a person for having ongoing psychological needs than for getting hungry every few hours.

This is not the same sort of problem as Zeno's paradox, but I think it has a similar nature.  Zeno ignored time, or thought that he could divide it infinitely without approaching a limit of zero when there was no more time to be divided.  People who think that human desire is never fulfilled are correct to the extent that we all have desires that rekindle from one moment to the next.  But the key point is those passing moments.  At a particular moment, your desires might be fulfilled (or, alternately, you may have achieved peace of mind sufficiently that you are content even if there is more you could wish for -- that is another whole dimension to the problem).  What you cannot prevent is that, in living on, your desires will present themselves anew at ever moment.  This is why I have always had trouble with Solon's pronouncement that he only judges a man happy when his life is over, as though how a man dies determines his happiness for the rest of his life.  How you feel at the moment of death may appear to be a summation, but it can't erase all the other moments you have experienced during your life, any more than a person's happiness at one moment can determine how he will feel for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Monoceros Resort

While I was visiting Thailand last year, I came across a sign for the Monoceros Resort.  I was interested because I wrote a post on this blog nearly six years ago about the surprising fact that the mythical horse creature with a single horn is almost always called the unicorn, not the monoceros, in spite of almost all other mythical animals having names deriving from Greek.

So I was shocked to find this resort going by the name of "Monoceros" instead of the more common "unicorn."  Well, I was almost as much shocked to find a resort with either name in rural Thailand as I was of anything else.  It is not hard to find via a Google search, and in fact appears to be a popular resort, at least for Swedes.  It was a small sign and I had no chance to get a picture of it, but you can see their logo below, and it does appear to be some sort of unicorn.  (I don't know what else it would be with that name; perhaps it could have been named after the constellation.)



So at least one place uses the Greek construction.  My first thought would that it would probably come from a non-native English speaker, which would be the case whether the resort's owners are Thai or Swedish.  Perhaps some day I will write and ask how they came up with their name.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Endowment Effect, Part 2

There is a staple of a certain kind of movie in which two people who are basically opposite of each other are forced to spend time together because of one circumstance or another.  They start off hating each other, but by the end of the movie they have become tolerant of one another, maybe even friends.  Does that happen in real life?

I think it does.  Consider married couples, for instance.  Studies show that couples in arranged marriages are no less happy than those who chose their own spouse.  There could be several reasons for this phenomenon.  The fact that married couples go through so many shared experiences is certainly one of them.  "Shared experience" is a sort of psychological buzzword, but I have found that it is a powerful force in my own life.  It's something that you can look back on and talk about, and some time that you probably experienced similar emotions with another person.  I have even read that taking a date to a scary movie is a good strategy, because the strong emotion of fear helps you to bond with each other.

What about objects?  I think of the beat-up baseball glove that a person might value much more than a newer one because it is the one he had throughout Little League, or the barely functioning truck in which a father and son went fishing many times.  These kinds of objects become invested with meaning because they relate to experiences in your life and remind you of what you have been through.

I suspect, however, that there is another mechanism at play in the way that we become attached to people and objects that we have been around for a long time.  Imagine you are in an unhappy marriage, but for whatever reason -- shame associated with divorce, fear of the unknown, etc. -- you stay with your spouse for 50 years.  It seems likely that your mind would begin to justify your behaviour after a time; not consciously, but subtly and in small ways.  Does your mind want to admit that you have wasted your life with the wrong person?  Or would it rather conclude that there was something about this person after all that made him or her the right match?

Or think of a writer who was too poor to afford a computer for a long time, and wrote many works on a typewriter.  He may have resented that typewriter the whole time, wishing he could have had a word processing program instead.  However, he may also develope an attachment to the typewriter.  He had it; it worked for him; maybe it was the right thing for him.  And maybe it was, but more likely his mind is simply justifying the fact that he had to waste hours retyping pages because he couldn't go back and edit what he had written.

I don't want to suggest that there isn't a real element of affection to these sorts of people and objects, because I have no doubt that it can and does exist.  I just think that our minds are likely to think that whatever we have had for a long time must have been the right thing for us, because the alternative is acknowledging that we wasted time with the wrong person or with a poor tool.  And so I think the Endowment Effect, in which people value things they own over identical things they don't own, is explicable partly from ordinary psychological reasons.

The example I gave in the last entry was a class of students who were given coffee mugs.  They would sell their mugs for a minimum of (say) $5, but they would not buy a mug for more than $2, which puzzles economists.  I think their behaviour is rational partly because of this normal psychological mechanism that causes us to think that whatever we have must be valuable, otherwise we wouldn't have acquired it.  The effect cannot, of course, explain why we would value a small coffee mug that we were given 5 minutes ago so much more than an identical one that we could buy now.  However, I think the psychology behind ownership is built into our brains.  If we have had to use an object for a long time, it is understandable if we develope an attachment to it, but it seems likely to me that our brains are already hard-wired to make the choices that we might make anyway for reasons of self-preservation.  What seems irrational behaviour over a coffee mug is probably a remnant of a much more rational behaviour that our brain applies to all objects that we own, even if the surrounding circumstances are quite different.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Endowment Effect

Some time not too long ago, maybe 30 years or so, psychologists discovered that people value things they already have over things they don't have.  One big experiment took place in a classroom where students were given coffee mugs and asked how much they would be willing to sell them for.  Let's say the average was $5 (though I don't remember exactly).  They then asked students how much they would buy the identical mug for, and the average was $2.  So here was a mug that students valued at $5 when they owned it, but only $2 when they didn't own it, which is contrary to economic theory that identical things should have identical value.  They called "the Endowment Effect."

The Endowment Effect seems like an amazingly good thing for society.  It makes everyone happier with what he has than what he doesn't have.  In other words, the net happiness of everyone is higher when they all own things because they will value their things beyond their utility.  If you think people are envious now, imagine how much worse it would be if people didn't value their own things more.  It is theoretically possible that they would even value their own things less than other people's, which sometimes seems to be the way people think.  It's "the grass is greener on the other side" applied to ownership of goods:  you want what someone else has until you acquire it, and then it seems less valuable to you.  Trading in these circumstances would presumably be intense:  everyone wants what everyone else has, and that continues even after they have made the trade.  They both want to trade back.

I don't think the Endowment Effect is as counterintuitive as some people claim, however.  There is at least one thing that it doesn't account for, and that is transaction costs.  Now, if you are a student in class and someone is offering to buy or sell a mug for cash, there is obviously little transaction cost.  In other cases, however, there is.  I know this because there is a minimum value that I'm willing to part with things on eBay.  Even though it isn't really all that much trouble to sell things there, I just don't want to invest the effort for less than $10.  In other words, I'd rather forego $10 than go to the trouble of selling something.  That would appear, in economic terms, like a sort of endowment effect.

But the transaction cost in strict terms is not the major thing driving the Endowment Effect.  I think there are two other features, one of which I will address now, and another I will reserve for my next blog entry.

The first thing that makes you value your own things over others is that you know your own things.  Arguably this is a sort of transaction cost that involves getting familiar with the goods that you acquire.  When you buy a new car, you have a lot of things to get used to:  the steering, the acceleration, the location of the controls, the kind of tires it needs, and so forth.  You may not be willing to trade an old car for a newer one because you don't want to take the trouble of figuring out the ins and outs of the new vehicle.  Obviously, this would only be worth so much money:  you're not going to turn down a new Corvette for a 20-year-old Escort under almost any circumstances.  But it is a real cost.  I don't think it's a transaction cost so much as a matter of the monetary value of knowledge.  The only way to get familiar with something is to use it, and you can't use it (normally) until you own it.  You will also, then, have a propensity for the same model with which you are familiar, and the same brand more generally, which is something that corporations know well:  that's one reason they offer you good deals to switch to their brand.  Even if they lose money in the short run, they stand to benefit by shifting your comfort to their brand instead of the competitors.

Even if you are trading for an identical model, information discrepancies exist.  Imagine, for example, that you buy a new car today.  Tomorrow at work, you find that one of your co-workers bought the exact same model from the same dealer on the same day.  The only difference is that his is red and yours is blue.  Now, if he approaches you and says, "I thought I wanted the red car, but I really would rather have the blue one.  I know red is your favourite colour, how about we just swap cars?"  Would you do it?

On one hand, the cars are ostensibly identical, and suppose you are indifferent to colour.  There would seem to be no reason for you not to trade cars with him.  On the other hand, you might be suspicious that there is something about his car that he doesn't like besides the colour.  With warranties, this is probably moot, but let's assume there could be some problem with the car not covered by the warranty.  Did he really just change his mind about the colour, or is he trying to get out of some other issue?  If you know the person well and trust him, you might assume it was just the colour; but that would be another means of addressing the information asymmetry, not a way of making it go away.  On top of that, there is a hassle in trading cars.  You probably have a loan that you would have to deal with; you would have to sign over the title and get the title to his car, hopefully without any issue; you would have to address the warranty's changing hands.

Just to carry this a bit further, suppose the cars were the same colour and he wanted to trade.  That would make you really suspicious, because there would seem to be no reason to trade identical vehicles, especially not with the paperwork hassle.

These issues do not apply to a coffee mug worth a few dollars, of course, but I think they are relevant to our psychology.  In general, there are good reasons why we might prefer what we have to what we don't have, even if they appear to be the same.  In my next post, I will address another possible reason for the Endowment Effect.