Less is More: How Robin Hanson’s Ideas Elegantly Frame Human Behavior
Robin Hanson is a professor of economics at George Mason University, but this description only captures a sliver of his contribution to the modern intellectual sphere. This profile is an attempt to capture some of his most insightful ideas, his preferred framing of others’ ideas, and their immediate implications and expose them to a wider audience.
You’ll notice that his way of thinking exposes human biases and attempts to explain a large number of puzzling observations in a simple and elegant manner, rejecting the banner of complexity in favor of parsimony. His theories consider curiosities of the universe, from human behavior to cosmic mysteries—integrating insights from economics, political science, philosophy, psychology, computer science, and physics (to name a few!)—all of which exposes Hanson’s polymathic nature.
Even if you disagree with Hanson, you’ll find that his thoughts earn serious consideration. He’s almost certainly thought of your rebuttal and already factored it into his assessment, and even if he’s wrong, he finds puzzles that merit a sincere alternative explanation, even if Hanson’s own is not to your taste. Let’s take a peek into the mind of Robin Hanson, a mind that tries continuously to overcome its biases and get closer to the truth.
Foragers and Farmers
There are many attempts to fit humanity into a dichotomous framework: liberals and conservatives, extroverts and introverts, dog-people and cat-people, etc. Hanson’s preferred distinction is the one between foragers and farmers.
Foragers are people who are adventurous, open, egalitarian. They love to travel, talk openly about controversial and taboo topics, and indulge frequently in leisure activities. Leaders rule by consensus and conflicts are dealt with informally and personally. This was the default state of humankind, the cultural cloth that evolution cultivated for us. But our discovery of agriculture led to another behavioral prototype: the farmer. Farmers are polite, orderly, and conscientious. They’re more accepting of hierarchies and strict enforcement of social norms. They work harder and longer and believe strongly in the concepts of good and evil, as well as human supremacy over nature.
Humanity widely adopted a farmer mindset in the world following the Agricultural Revolution but preceding the Industrial Revolution, with cultural pressures encouraging us to adopt and enforce strict norms. The loose nature of the previous forager society couldn’t persist when plants needed to be grown and harvested on a regular and demanding timetable. However, with industrialization, the population proportion of foragers has grown, as a function of the dramatic increase in per-capita wealth. What was only accessible to rich elites in the past, who had the opportunity to revert to forager ways, is now much more common-place.
In the modern era, Hanson remarks on the curious nature of the industrialized world when viewed through the forager-farmer framework, specifically regarding workplace culture: “When we are at work, as industrialists, we are hyper-farmers …. Outside of work, we’ve become more forager-like, but at work, we are more farmer-like than farmers.”
Hanson explains that the explicit hierarchies of the modern workplace would hardly be tolerated by farmers of old, let alone our distant forager ancestors. In The Age of Em, Hanson considers this divide growing even larger in a future where human brain emulations, or “ems” exist in a virtual world, with each em simulating a person’s consciousness. The idea is to port the “software” of the human brain to computer hardware, emulating human intelligence without necessarily understanding it fully, likely using brain scans and complex signal-processing techniques. Hanson speculates that in such a world, the ems economy would necessitate work and private lives become even more polarized with respect to the forager and farmer framework.
Hanson warns that if per-capita wealth increases don’t persist, the forager mindset might become infeasible once more. He also notes that a forager attitude encourages “the world to adapt to [humanity]” and might not be as advantageous as the more compliant and flexible behavior of the farmers, who adapted on a cultural level to the demands of an agricultural existence. If the forager mindset is no longer plausible to maintain because of lack of resources, the seemingly relentless march towards loosening of cultural norms and taboos may not be permanently tenable, and the recent liberalization of norms and customs may not last.
Hanson is fond of explaining human behavior in terms of cognitive biases, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the name of his blog is “Overcoming Bias.” One example is his view on the tendency to prefer “The Inside View” when forecasting solutions or timelines for a problem. The Inside View involves evaluating the task at hand using a number of highly specific details and within a narrowly-defined context. Hanson, taking the lead from researchers Kahneman and Lovallo in their 1993 article “Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts,” suggests that this is a mistake and that we should consider a more general or “Outside View” where the pertinent details of the case are abstracted away. From an Outside View, we project future success and project length purely by extrapolating from past information and base rates. The Inside View is likely to fall victim to a number of blunders, including underestimation of costs, failure to anticipate unlikely events, and overoptimistic assessments of the desired outcomes.
A simple example of the difference between Inside and Outside View would be when you’re budgeting how much time to set aside for your next task. An Inside View would lead you to consider all the relevant details for this next task—how many pages you have to write, how motivated you are at the present moment, how easy each of the subproblems are to solve, etc. You would develop a very precise model and estimate of the situation that carefully weighs a wide array of factors to predict completion time. If you adopted an Outside View instead, you would try to find similar tasks you’d completed before and simply take the average of their completion times to project how long this task should take you. You’ll likely find that the Outside View gets you much closer to the actual time it will take, since it accounts for all of the complexities that your Inside View model neglects in an unbiased manner and is directly based on prior performance.
When pressed on the benefits and costs of the Inside and Outside Views, Hanson conceded that both have their place, though he still holds that most should be wary of the Inside View. If one relies heavily on a carefully constructed model instead of leveraging information from similar cases, “it’s easier to be more overconfident with [an] internal analysis, there [are] more places where you can give yourself the benefit of the doubt in making an assumption.” There are still degrees of freedom with the Outside View when considering which base cases to extrapolate from but “it’s harder to be crazy biased there, because there’s a limited degree to which you have choice to pick cases.” When there’s a conflict between the two views, Hanson would likely take the Outside path. He qualifies his argument with the possibility that one can develop their “meta-rationality,” or ability to assess their own level of rationality and bias, to a high degree and in such situations may be justified using the Inside View.
When pressed on if the Outside View disqualifies you from ever being contrarian, Hanson was quick to clarify that the contrarian/majoritarian axis was separate from the inside/outside axis. He explained how his contrarian take on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was developed by taking the Outside View, since many experts are relying from their Inside View models and theories of the situation instead of considering the relevant past data. Even if there’s a correlation between the axes, as well as a meta-outside argument in favor of majoritarianism, Hanson is still confident that the Outside View does not rule out being contrarian.
Hanson explains that similar to the Inside/Outside view, are the “Near” or “Far” modes, each with its own biases and pitfalls. In psychology, this is known as a construal-level theory, referring to the multiple levels at which we construe ideas and beliefs. When we are subjectively close to an idea, we tend to overweight current desires and motivations. We act impulsively and are more uncertain than is justified about future outcomes. On the other hand, when there is large psychological distance (temporally or spatially) to a concept, we instead act coolly and confidently, projecting our preferred theories or predictions without concerns of feasibility or risks. Here, we’ll overweight the probability of the unlikely if it fits our values or pet preferences. Hanson once again cautions us to beware and overcome these biases if we want to secure the best possible future for humanity.
Practically speaking, differences between Near and Far mode thinking can manifest when people are willing to entertain ideas in the abstract, or Far mode, but when one attempts to make their point concrete or specific, people are much more resistant to change. As Hanson puts it, “The Overton Window is much wider at the abstract level than at the concrete level,” where Overton Window refers to the range of policies deemed feasible and palatable by the mainstream population. In Near mode, conformity norms are enforced much more strongly and contrarian ideas are less likely to be tolerated. While both modes have their useful instances, I think Hanson would generally prefer that our abstract tendencies remain consistent when applied to concrete situations instead of varying at the object-level. This means that instead of Near and Far modes leading to different conclusions, one should strive to make their construals consistent, regardless of the level of cognitive distance from any particular idea.
Morality and Dealism
Hanson’s tendency to prefer the abstract over the concrete informs his general philosophy of attempting to find a broad and parsimonious principle that can be applied widely and deviated from sparingly. For instance, instead of appealing purely to moral intuitions on specific ethical dilemmas, Hanson believes that we should attempt to find a simple moral theory that loosely fits a wide variety of cases, instead of a complex one that overfits each specific instance very tightly.
This line of thinking would lead one to, for example, prefer strict Conseqeuntialist or Deontological moral theories over any pluralistic theory that appeals to both Consequentialist and Deontological ideals. His belief is motivated by the assumption that our error for any one situation is likely to be very high, so our confidence in any overly complex theory should be low—it’s another appeal to the Outside View that avoids favoring an intricate model with little justification. It’s also another case of his preference for abstraction—relying too heavily on context-specific norms can bind you to concrete rules that don’t apply when the context changes.
Hanson, however, has found another approach to moral dilemmas that he favors, borne out of the frequent cost-benefit analyses of economists. He calls this approach “Dealism,” a system that relies on economists, or perhaps simply neutral counselors, advising all interested parties on how to best achieve their desired ends, ignoring the supposed morality of those ends and the actions taken to achieve them. If those ends involve moral conditions, that is acceptable, but the system itself makes no collective assumptions about morality. In other words, if someone desires to “act morally according to Hedonic Utilitarianism,” then Dealism would advocate that they should be aided in all attempts to reach that goal, without presupposing that Hedonic Utilitarianism is normatively ethical. “It is a consequentialism of economics, but not of morality,” Hanson asserts, since the consequences of the advised actions are not weighed morally but economically. Even if the system relies upon metrics similar to other moral theories, such as preference consequentialism, it avoids making any claim about whether those theories are justified morally, instead just incidentally aligning with them in how agents’ ends are inferred and evaluated.
It’s an intriguing approach to side-stepping ethical debate that is certainly appealing to some and likely repulsive to others—familiar territory for many of Hanson’s ideas.
Hanson and some of his colleagues are often maligned for their insistence that many behaviors and institutions exist to uphold our commitment to “signaling.” Those who disagree with them think their conception of “signaling” is too broad or vague to have explanatory power. Hanson, in an effort to clarify his specific factual claim, defines a message as a form of signaling if it fits four criteria: it cannot be gleaned solely from the literal meaning of the words used, it cannot be immediately or easily verified, it is primarily about personal qualities of the messenger, and those qualities are socially desirable or advantageous for the sender. In Hanson’s words, “Cheap talk cannot send a message like this…. these are “costly” signals…. I’d say that most of our communication is “signaling” of this sort.”
An example would be someone signaling their empathy or level of caring by making a large and public donation to a charity. When donating, they assert that the cause they are donating to is a noble one but don’t make any claims about their own personal nature; society would view it as poor form to loudly extol one’s virtue after making a sizable donation. In this way, all four criteria are fulfilled: we have to read between the lines of the words used, we cannot easily verify whether or not the messenger is virtuous, the message is indeed about the personal qualities of the donor, and it is seen as socially desirable to be an empathetic and caring individual. The key here is that someone’s stated intention for performing an action is in opposition with their true motivation, and they are instead attempting to demonstrate their possession of a desirable quality in a subtle way.
Hanson’s conception of signaling is well-supported by evolutionary psychology research and provides a framework for a number of his other insights into human behavior.
Hanson believes humans evolved large and complex brains relative to their primate peers in order to break social norms designed to enforce fairness and equality. Because the norms are complicated and fuzzy, there are huge gains to be made from larger brains. Humans bend such norms in order to advance themselves and even self-deceive in order to more convincingly and subtly get around them. The humans who got around rules the best, i.e. the ones with the biggest brains, were the ones who most successfully passed their genes on to succeeding generations, earning the moniker “Home Hypocritus” from Hanson due to the often hypocritical attitude we adopt when we selectively enforce norms on others and simultaneously bend them when it is in our best interest to do so.
Once more, the ideas of concrete and abstract modes of thinking come into play. In the abstract, “Almost all of us tell ourselves that there are principles we adhere to and are faithful to. We just don’t look at our behavior very much to check.” When these norms are far away from us, temporally and spatially, and idealized, we are in favor of their existence and enforcement, but when they are near and present, we subconsciously evade them and evoke context-specific reasons to deceive ourselves about our intentions. A key point here is that this norm evasion is done almost entirely subconsciously, since even thinking about breaking from social convention or making taboo trade offs can engender feelings of mistrust and outrage in others if revealed.
When asked if this kind of self-deception has become less advantageous in the modern environment, Hanson thinks that humans still haven’t entirely adapted to the less tribal nature of our current era. “In high school, [most people] are really sensitive and care a lot about their social friendships and relationships.” In the ancestral environment, this was advisable, even necessary, since one’s tribal affiliation was often for life. But in the present, people often have limited interactions with their peers and friends from high school, making the act of caring excessively about social status during adolescence outdated, or at the very least, of lower importance.
Another example is the role of guilt or shame in our modern era. Shame was a powerful tool in the ancestral environment, punishing deviations from social mores and conventions with severe consequences for one’s standing. It remains powerful today, even though the risk of alienation and significant status decreases are much lower. Ultimately it seems like the instrumental viability of such self-deception has lowered with the progress of time, though our instincts have lagged behind our cultural progress and still govern our behavior.
X is not about Y (but really about Z)
This is likely Hanson’s most cutting observation, tying together his beliefs about signaling and self-deception. Hanson believes that most human behavior is not actually driven by our public motivations or desires—for example, if we ask someone to explain why they engage in a specific behavior or activity, their justification is likely hiding (perhaps subconsciously) their true motive. This spurred the creation of the Hansonian meme: “X is not about Y.” Examples abound, including “Politics is not about Policy, School isn’t about Learning, and Medicine isn’t about Health.” In all of these cases, the consensus around why the activity is performed is subtly covering up the hidden reasons, such as to signal tribal loyalty, or to earn credentials to signal conscientiousness and conformity, or to show our caring and protective natures. In the last scenario, Hanson is quick to point out that most healthcare expenditure is wasteful, even in cases where it’s clear that spending more money is unlikely to lead to better health outcomes. Hanson and Kevin Simler even wrote a book, The Elephant in the Brain, exploring this phenomenon in a number of cultural contexts, attempting in each case to find out a simple and coherent theory that better explains the performed activity instead of its popular justification. Homo Hypocritus is often to blame, our abilities to self-deceive coming in handy to present more desirable and palatable motives instead of the true, but selfish, rationale.
As mentioned above, this idea has been propagated widely across the internet, summarizing Hanson’s position on signaling and human hypocrisy with a (unintended!) comedic air. It’s spurred a number of memes and tongue-in-cheek internet comments, both from self-aware supporters who recognize the difficulty in accepting some of the claims as well as critics who think Hanson is blatantly overreaching. Hanson is unsure of why this idea is found so humorous; my personal suspicion is that the immediate absurdity of the claims, as well as their wide-reaching implications about human behavior and institutions, are to blame.
To see where else people’s stated motivations might differ from their underlying desires, I decided to ask Hanson about something that would strike close to home: what does he think about the possibility that the field he’s become known for, futurism, a field ostensibly about predicting the future, is in fact about something else entirely? Hanson embraces the notion unabashedly: “People might say that [futurism is] about making the future, but it’s not really about that at all.” Hanson suggests that futurism might be likened to fiction or politics, where people are claiming to talk about what’s good for certain fictional characters or what’s good for their nation, but instead are talking about themselves and attempting to make a case for their own values. Futurism is just another case where abstract thoughts and predictions are used to justify current behavior and interests. “[People] care about the future as a place to set morality tales.”
We might bring in Near and Far mode again to explain how people reason abstractly about future worlds and possibilities in an attempt to ground their concrete actions and beliefs at the present moment. It’s a common science fiction technique, Hanson notes, to mask commentary about the present in a story that seems to be about the future. Reasoning about the future also gives the thinker the license to remove constraints from their model of the world, potentially diluting their argument’s relevance to any prediction of the future, especially if those constraints are particularly problematic to the thinker’s present day-situation.
The thrust of Hanson’s argument seems to be that thinking about the future can quickly turn into a display of biased reasoning if one isn’t careful to ground their abstract notions. It’s a big reason why he’s a proponent of cryonics, or the low-temperature freezing of the human body or head after death with the ultimate aim of resurrection in the distant future: “I found it was one of the few concrete choices I could make in my life that actually intersected much with the various future discussions I was having with people around me about the distant future.” By choosing to freeze his future corpse for the (admittedly slim) possibility of revival, he’s taken a tangible step towards predicting and even influencing the future, something that many futurists may not be as aligned with as one might think. To sniff out the futurism pretenders, Hanson poses the following question: “When we come across concrete decisions that do intersect [with predictions about the future], how does that change your behavior?”
The Hansonian Lens
This is just a little taste of Robin Hanson, an appetizer to an endless buffet of intellectual stimulation. One might sate their hunger for more by reading his books, “The Age of Em,” and “The Elephant in the Brain” (co-written with Kevin Simler), as well as following his blog, Overcoming Bias, where Hanson has written for almost two decades on a wide array of topics.
Hanson’s worldview is not for everyone. It seems overly cynical to some, needlessly abstract to others, and fundamentally misguided to many. To those people, Hanson is always willing to engage in polite and reasonable discussion, in an attempt to iron out where their disagreements are on the object-level, regarding specific factual claims and beliefs. Because of his contrarian nature, you are unlikely to agree with him on every subject, but it’s very likely that even in disagreement, your understanding of a topic will improve after discussing it with Hanson.
There’s a theorem that’s become popular in Hanson’s corner of the internet called Aumann’s agreement theorem, which states that two rational agents cannot agree to disagree, assuming certain facts about the agents and their beliefs. It’s undoubtedly impractical, but a small part of me thinks that disagreements with Robin Hanson are much closer than most disputes to the Aumannian ideal, by virtue of his relentless drive to align his beliefs with truth.