Sunday, January 14, 2018

Does collective self-deception mask selfish behavior?

Adam Smith talked about how people act on their own self-interest yet are led to help society by the invisible hand. But don't we see people sometimes behaving altruistically? Maybe. But we might be deceiving ourselves about our motives. Maybe we actually have selfish reasons for doing good.

See The Tangled Web We Weave: Collective self-deception helps mask the selfish behavior we see running rampant in art, charity, education, medicine, religion and politics. Matthew Hutson reviews ‘The Elephant in the Brain’ by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson from the WSJ. Excerpts:
"“The Elephant in the Brain” focuses on the false narrative of hiding selfish motives. Much of what we do, including our most generous behavior, the authors say, is not meant to be helpful. We are, like many other members of the animal kingdom, competitively altruistic—helpful in large part to earn status. That may be obvious when billionaires jockey for naming rights to buildings, but it plays out in more subtle ways.

Casual conversations, for instance, often trade in random information. But the point is not to trade facts for facts; what you are actually doing, the book argues, is showing off so people can evaluate your intellectual versatility. By sharing information, you are not merely being helpful or entertaining, you are advertising yourself.

The authors take particular interest in large-scale social issues and institutions, showing how systems of collective self-deception help explain the odd behavior we see in art, charity, education, medicine, religion and politics. Why do people vote? Not to strengthen the republic, the authors say. A single vote rarely matters, and we rarely even seek objective information on the candidates. Instead, we cheer for our team and participate as a signal of loyalty, hoping for the benefits of inclusion. In education, as many economists have argued, learning is ancillary to accreditation and status. A degree signals that one has the intelligence and stamina to enter and survive a degree program.

The authors call medicine “conspicuous caring.” In many areas of medicine, they note, increased care does not improve outcomes. People offer it to broadcast helpfulness, or demand it to demonstrate how much support they have from others. The case for medicine as a hidden act of selfishness may have some truth, but it also has holes. For example, the book does not address why medical spending is so much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere—do Americans care more than others about health care as a status symbol?"

"Spread the gospel of “effective altruism” so that people gain status for practical rather than flashy charity. Retain academic credentials but teach something useful in schools, such as personal finance. Make promises to be good; you are more likely to follow through for fear of appearing hypocritical, and through such a commitment you may also gain the status of being considered trustworthy."

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