• ## YAAS Social Norms

Social norms are collective behaviors conditional on empirical and normative social expectations. We can confirm their existence in the world via carefully constructed measurement, usually in the form of questionnaires. Changing a harmful norm requires not just changing individuals but changing a community and making that change common knowledge. It may also require solving collective action problems.

When agents act or plan to act, they do so on the basis of both beliefs and preferences. Alternatively, we can phrase these as reasons and passions. Or we can say that a reward function and a model of the environment are required for a policy.

### Foundation

Before we can analyze collective behavior, we have to make a few foundational distinctions.

#### Preferences

##### Individual or social

Preferences can be either individual or social preferences. Social preferences are those that “take into account the behavior, beliefs, and outcomes of other people” while individual preferences do not (Bicchieri 2016). (Example to come.) This distinction is important because changing individual preferences can plausibly happen in isolation, one person after another. Changing social preferences on the other hand is more likely to require coordinated group action.

##### Conditional or unconditional

Preferences can also be conditional or unconditional1. Conditional preferences are those that vary with some feature of the environment while unconditional preferences do not. This is an important distinction because a social engineer can change the way conditional preferences manifest by changing the environment while unconditional preferences can only be altered in a direct confrontation.

NitW also draws a distinction between prudential and moral preferences. I think these can be viewed as a special case of conditional and unconditional preferences. It seems we can gloss these to preferences which seek to satisfy instrumental or intrinsic values. Preferring not to cheat out of a fear of getting caught is a prudential preference; preferring not to cheat because it’s an odious breach of faith is a moral preference. This distinction is important because moral preferences are typically more stable—prudential preferences may change with changing circumstances while moral preferences will not.

##### Together

If we put these two axes together, we end up with a classificatory grid like this:

Full post

• ## The curse of the altruistic voter

If voters have social preferences (second-order preferences that the preferences of others be satisfied or thwarted) and imperfect information about the preferences of others, voting altruistically may produce worse outcomes—for the individual voter and for society at large—than ignoring social preferences and voting egocentrically. This problem seems like it may actually be common in the real world. While I doubt any voting system can eliminate the problem, including information about private preferences in polls may ameliorate it.

Broke
Voting on election day
Woke
Advocating for alternative voting systems on election day
Bespoke
Talking about obscure desiderata of voting systems on election day

### Scenario

#### Narrative

Suppose you’re voting on increased funding for the local library. You don’t personally use the library much, but you figure that others in the polity are reliant on the library. Out of a sense of solidarity, you vote for increased funding. This is despite the fact that, from a purely egocentric perspective, increased funding for the library reduces your welfare (that is, the harm of increased taxes outweighs the negligible benefit of a better library that you won’t use). When the voting results come in, the library funding measure passes in a landslide and you bask in the warm glow of your altruism.

Alas, the voting results are no guarantee that you’ve actually acted altruistically. It’s entirely possible that you misunderstood the preferences of others and that the polity has made a decision that’s net harmful. For example, it could be the case that each voter was just like you—personally uninterested but willing to vote prosocially. In such a scenario, everyone has increased their taxes and no one benefits because no one actually uses the library.

#### Numerical

If it helps, we can make this example a bit more precise by picking cardinal utilities to illustrate.

The table outlines a scenario in which each of three voters (it’s a small polity) prefers option Same Library. Unfortunately, they’ve each come to the inaccurate belief that each other voter prefers option More Library. That is voter A slightly prefers Same Library but believes voter B and voter C each slightly prefer More Library.

If our voters are earnest utilitarians in a first-past-the-post system, they’ll all vote for More Library (because the perceived social welfare of More Library is $$1 + 1 - 1 = 2$$ which is greater than $$0 + 0 + 0 = 0$$) and it will win. The resulting actual social welfare will be $$-3 = 3 \cdot -1$$. If our voters had voted in a purely egocentric manner—ignoring the preferences of others, they would each pick Same Library and the social welfare would have been $$0 = 3 \cdot 0$$.

This is pretty perverse—our voters have selected the social welfare minimizing option despite their scrupulous motives and they would have better achieved their altruistic ends by voting selfishly!

Full post

Evolving Floor Plans is an experimental research project exploring speculative, optimized floor plan layouts. The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc.
Really good ocean. Not the best hurricane basin, but very large and full of swift currents and interesting fauna. If you’re only going to see one ocean, it should be this one. —Kiefer Hicks
One star deducted due to great big garbage patch. One additional star deducted for proximity to California. Try visiting the Atlantic Ocean instead. Pic unrelated. —Edward Drawde

Interesting example of unintended consequences:

So, the potential logic here is that if your parents know you are going to end up living with them (and supporting them—not living in their basement and eating their food), they’ll invest more in your education. […] On average, [after the introduction of a national pension program,] fully treated women experience a 6.7 percentage point (7.6 percent) drop in the likelihood of completing primary school, a 3.3 percentage point (10 percent) drop in secondary, and a 1.1 percentage point (20 percent) drop in attending university.

Vividly illustrates the garden of forking paths (Gelman and Loken 2013):

Twenty-nine teams involving 61 analysts used the same data set to address the same research question: whether soccer referees are more likely to give red cards to dark-skin-toned players than to light-skin-toned players. Analytic approaches varied widely across the teams, and the estimated effect sizes ranged from 0.89 to 2.93 (Mdn = 1.31) in odds-ratio units. Twenty teams (69%) found a statistically significant positive effect, and 9 teams (31%) did not observe a significant relationship. Overall, the 29 different analyses used 21 unique combinations of covariates.

[…]

Analysts’ subjective beliefs about the research hypothesis were assessed four times during the project: at initial registration (i.e., before they had received the data), after they had accessed the data and submitted their analytic approach, at the time final analyses were submitted, and after a group discussion of all the teams’ approaches and results.

More long-term results on direct cash transfers. Also mixed. See earlier discussion. Awaiting GiveWell’s promised update eagerly.

Full post

• ## Clickbait from Norms in the Wild

Curios from (Bicchieri 2016) follow. These don’t fit into subsequent posts, but may pique your interest in said posts.

### On honoring infants

From UNICEF participants in our training program I learned that in many parts of Africa milk is classified as “hot” and water “cold,” that honored guests are given water, and that children are treated like honored guests. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On diarrhetic taxonomies

Norms in the Wild emphasizes that would-be reformers must understand not only local conditions (physical facts) but also local understandings (beliefs about those facts and schema). It illustrates the point with this vivid example:

For example, Yoder (1995) demonstrated that local Zairian understandings of the nature, causes, and appropriate treatment of childhood diarrhea differed considerably from the contemporary biomedical approach. What most Westerners would consider a case of diarrhea could be classified as one of six different diseases by residents of Lubumbashi, Zaire, depending on the perceived symptoms of the sufferer. All of the diseases feature frequent stools as one of their central symptoms, but only Kauhara (one of the local terms for a type of diarrhea) was functionally equated with what a medical practitioner would diagnose as diarrhea. Other diarrheal classifications, such as Lukunga, which featured a “clacking sound” in the mouth as a critical symptom (in addition to frequent stools), was not equated with the typical medical diagnosis. When various organizations tried to inform Zairians about appropriate treatments for diarrhea, many locals likely interpreted the information to be only specific to Kauhara (and not other local disease classifications). In line with this assertion, the sampled Zairians in Yoder’s (1995) study readily *gave the appropriate treatment (e.g., oral rehydration therapy) to their children if they were thought to have Kahuara but not if they were thought to have another diarrheal disease. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On taming poop

Open defecation is the practice of defecating outside in something like a field rather than a toilet. It’s still common in many parts of the world despite being a public health nightmare. When trying to eliminate open defecation:

In some such interventions, facilitators will lead groups of people through the heart of open defecation fields, effectively triggering collective feelings of disgust and embarrassment. Later the facilitators will place feces next to food, and point out how flies will flit back and forth between them, effectively simulating the disease transmission process. Through this example, food that is left out near feces is linked with feelings of disgust. The facilitator can also smear her hands with clay or charcoal, wipe them on a leaf (simulating having fecal matter on one’s hands even after wiping them “clean”), and shake hands with members of the community. The community members will get a little clay or charcoal on their hands, and consequently those who do not adequately wash their hands will be seen as disgusting. (Bicchieri 2016)
All the communities where the practice was successfully abandoned collectively decided to sanction transgressions and closely monitored adherence to the new behavior. Children may go around with whistles drawing attention to the defectors, and elders may take long sticks, ready to “slap the wrists” of anyone who violates the new rule. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On reluctant female genital cutting

Pluralistic ignorance describes scenarios in which group members conform to a norm they each privately reject because each falsely believe that others accept the norm. It seems to sometimes explain the persistence of female genital cutting.

Full post

• ## YAAS

The “amateur” part isn’t an entirely false modesty. I am indeed often summarizing works in areas where I have limited experience and I’m certainly not paid for it. As such, despite my best efforts, I will assuredly sometimes mangle the subject matter. Once we both acknowledge this, we’re left with the question: Why bother to read or write these summaries?

### For you

I can think of a few reasons you might like to read these summaries despite those limitations:

#### Curse of expertise

Experts may1 be worse at explaining material than intermediate practitioners due to heuristics like anchoring and availability (Hinds 1999). Anecdotally, it seems like professors who know the material too well to explain it are a common experience. As someone who has just learned the material I’m summarizing, I may be well-positioned to explain it.

#### Length

As the perennial popularity of summarizers attests, there’s an audience for condensed versions of books. Existing summarizers seem to target self-help and management books though. I, on the other hand, expect to target a more niche and academic set of books. I’ll somewhat cheekily summarize that as: If it’s ever been on a best-seller list, don’t expect to see it here.

Full post

A weblog