Utilitarians probably wasting time on recreation

by nebulous1 min read3rd Jan 201282 comments


Personal Blog

[Post edited to use life expectancy data from estimated time of birth rather than from 2012 and avoid extra significant digits.]

[Edited again to make the title more to the point and less abrasive, change the math since I found that Uganda is not one of their top four countries aided, include an accurate figure for the average age of an AMF beneficiary, link to sources on life expectancy and mosquito net distribution data, and improve some wording.]


This post argues that working a job and donating the resultant money to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) is more beneficial than recreation from a utilitarian standpoint.

AMF, GiveWell's current top rated charity, distributes mosquito nets to people at high risk of contracting and dying from malaria. To find the amount of life saved by donating a dollar to AMF, I use the following formula: (average life expectancy in aided country - average age of beneficiary) / dollars AMF needs to save one life.

According to an email from AMF representative Rob Mather, the average age of an AMF beneficiary is 25-30. I'll pick the age 28 to be conservative on the amount of life saved per donation. I made a weighted average by nets distributed of the life expectancies of the top three countries that AMF has worked in (Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania) to estimate the average life expectancy in a typical AMF-aided country.

Zambia has 332,660 nets distributed, Malawi has 355,400 nets distributed, and Tanzania has 131,293 nets distributed, for a total of 819,353. Zambia has ~41 percent of nets distributed among the top three, while Malawi has ~43 percent and Tanzania has ~16 percent. Zambia's life expectancy for the average 28-year-old beneficiary is 51.56 years, Malawi's is 51.08 years, and Tanzania's is 45.75 years. The average life expectancy for an AMF beneficiary in the top three aided countries multiplies and adds up to ~50.42 years. (Source on life expectancy. Source on net distribution.)

This means that the time saved per life saved is ~22 years. According to GiveWell, AMF needs just under two thousand dollars to save a life. 22 divided by two thousand is ~0.011 years saved per dollar, or ~4.0 days saved per dollar. Suppose that you gave up some recreation time and instead worked some part-time job such as filling out online surveys for five dollars an hour. If each dollar was donated to AMF, that would save ~20 days per hour, or ~480 hours per hour. If the highest-paying job you could work in your recreation time pays five dollars an hour, then to justify your spending time on recreation rather than on working and donating the money to AMF within an altruistic morality, your recreation time would need to be ~480 times as valuable as an equivalent amount of time in a third world person's life. Your recreation time would need to be even more valuable if a higher-paying job was available. Just multiply the available hourly salary by the amount of life AMF can save per dollar to find how much life you can save per hour.

If anyone has more accurate figures, please post them.


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Is it seriously possible to make $5/hr filling out surveys online? I thought those websites were all scams?

If someone can teach me how to make $5/hr filling out surveys, I'll give the first $10 I earn to the SIAI.

2CarlShulman9yI encountered one (although only one) legitimate case of this after doing strategy consulting interviews (some HR firm trying to form a picture of candidates). They contacted me through a legitimate email address and website, etc.
2wuthefwasthat9yI think you can make $5/hr with Mechanical Turk.
0RobertLumley9yBut not the AMF? :-P
0jefftk9yIf you're curious whether the AMF is a scam, reading GiveWell's review [http://givewell.org/international/top-charities/AMF] might be helpful. After reading the review I'm pretty well convinced it's not only not a scam but that it's doing a lot of good.

I'll be the first to admit that I value my time at far more than 931x the equivalent amortized-third-world-person-lifespan time. I am wired to care about me, my family, and my friends, and people culturally and physically close to me; that's the way I am, and that's the way you are, too, and so is the first fellow whose lifespan I could be extending, if he were in my position.

When all three of us are ready to re-engineer our values on this axis, then let's talk.

0amcknight9yI don't think this is true. You are wired at a lower level with all kinds of crazy wires that can tend you or maybe most people towards caring about the things you mention, but these things aren't necessarily the things everyone will end up caring about. Is anyone aware of any relevant neuroscience on this?

An observation that is not my reason for objecting is that increasing the population of the third world doesn't strike me as desirable even from the perspective of my altruistic ideals. I have no inclination to donate to the AMF.

Would you be in favour of releasing a more virulent strain of malaria, in order to more effectively reduce the population? If not then you may be falling prey to status-quo bias. (If I misunderstand you, and you are not arguing that donating to AMF would have negative value to you, then I apologise).

5wedrifid9yOr maybe I'm really just not a stereotypical consequentialist movie villain? I have ethics [http://lesswrong.com/lw/v1/ethical_injunctions/] for a start.
0benelliott9ySo you would say that in theory you support lowering third world populations, but in practice not because in general arguments in favour of genocide are almost always wrong, or just because it seems like the sort of thing a bad person would do and you don't want to be a bad person? I'm not attacking consequentialism, I'm consequentialist myself, I'm just puzzled by the fact you seem to be assigning negative value to human lives.
9wedrifid9yI don't value increasing third world population. Most obviously because more people starving to death closer to near a Malthusian limit is a bad thing. What do you mean "Just"? I was attacking consequentialism, at least the kind of consequentialism that assumes that killing people is morally equivalent to not saving them (that is most kinds). Extermination and inaction are not the same thing either intellectually or morally. I can only be considered a consequentialist in the sense that I am an agent trying to maximise the value of the state of the universe where that state includes time. ie. Not just the future matters but how you get there. This allows that murder can be bad even if everything ends up the same in 5 years. I'm not. I'm assigning negative value to squalor and death. Causing more people to be born is a very slight positive which would dominate if there were zero externalities. I don't want to get into this discussion much further... there is far too much of a default moral high ground of "Yay! Donating to Africans is altruistic!" regardless of whether it results in better outcomes. This just means that such conversations seem like work. I'll donate to existential risk and ignore "breed more africans!" funds.
4nebulous9yI agree that existential risk is a higher priority. I used AMF in my example because its benefits are easy to accurately quantify.
3jimrandomh9yThe hope is that at higher population, third world nations will break out of the Malthusian trap and transition from the shitholes they are now into healthy growing economies. The "Malthusian limit" isn't really a fixed thing anymore, since infrastructure and economic development can raise agricultural output and the sustainable population by orders of magnitude. And a lot of third-world evils - malaria included - have the additional effect of leaving lots of weakened or crippled people, which seems more like the sort of thing that drags a society down than population growth does. On the other hand, this argument does suggest that fixing things that weaken has more value than fixing things that kill; ie, it's better to prevent a case of childhood malnutrition that leaves an intellectually stunted adult, than to prevent a case of childhood infection that leaves a corpse. I think that this conclusion is one which conventional altruists would find much more reasonable.
6wedrifid9yI don't pretend to have expertise in history but that hope seems... backwards somehow. What allowed first world countries to reach their current economic state most certainly wasn't reaching a sufficiently high population. I have no problem just lying to conventional altruists in order to seem 'reasonable' to them. Or, preferably, not talking about (the equivalent of) politics or perhaps saying true and positive things about their 'altruism' that give the impression that I'm on their 'side' without actually having to believe anything crazy. And in cases where their 'altruistic' cause isn't even near the top of the givewell list (or existential risk related) then I'll almost certainly not say outright that they're just giving 50 bucks to take away their guilt [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcdtVD8X1-A], that'd be rude.
0juliawise9yWhat's your goal here? To make them feel better? To avoid seeming like a jerk? Or to further whatever goals you consider altruistic/generally a good idea? If the last one, why lie to them? Because you think there's no way they'll see your point? Obviously none of us speaks our minds all the time - when I see someone giving to a cause I consider inefficient, I don't shout, "Wait, I know a better way!" But if there's an opportunity, saying "I really wonder if increasing the world's population is a good idea at this point, so I favor charities that focus on quality of life rather than lives saved" seems better to me than false agreement. Jerkitude and lying are not your only options here.
0wedrifid9yTo execute the role of someone with rudimentary social skills and reap the many benefits that go along with that. Sometimes evangelism (or obnoxious invalidation of people's warm-fuzzies) just isn't the most useful action in a given circumstance. "Wedrifid" is somewhat more forthright than I in this regard.
1juliawise9yAn example would be deworming [http://www.povertyactionlab.org/scale-ups/school-based-deworming], which doesn't save many lives but does improve quality of life and school attendance rates.
-2benelliott9yBut the aim isn't to create people, its to save those who are already alive. You are saying that many of those people need to die now to prevent other deaths later, sounds pretty movie-vilain to me. Well, its not always a good argument. Bad guys stereotypically have cats, this doesn't make cat ownership wrong. Yes, this is an absurd parody, but the general point is valid, correlation does not imply causation. They seem pretty similar from the perspective of the person on the other end.
7wedrifid9yNo it doesn't. That's ridiculous. It sounds like the role of an extra who isn't playing any significant role in the movie at all. I've never once seen a movie where the villain was completely irrelevant to the plot and made no significant plot related actions. I'm afraid you've just lost the assumption of good faith. Your earlier questions could have at least been genuine confusion but now it seems you are just trying to villainise the act of not sharing your naive morality. I mean as actual literal villains who do things like create genocidal diseases. That sounds true until you actually think about it. Someone trying to exterminate you doesn't seem anything like someone who isn't involved at all.
0curiousepic9yI thought the argument for increasing the (healthy) population of the third world is to help it "ascend" to first-world status. More time spent on things other than just surviving, etc.

I think realistically, most people burn out if they don't spend some time relaxing. If your argument had been more extreme, it might argue that people should sacrifice a couple of hours of sleep each day as well, right? But it's plausible that for most people, going off of 6 hours of sleep per day will decrease their cognitive ability and productivity drastically. Or that exercising 1 hour a day has sufficient physical and mental health benefits to justify it. Could some amount of recreation be worth it? I think so. I think I couldn't function without some recreation, although I agree that I should actively work to decrease the dependency.

But of course, you have a point. Everyone is wasting some time. Nobody is being perfectly altruistic, and making the best choices at all times. I don't think anyone ever thought they were...

Everyone is wasting some time. Nobody is being perfectly altruistic, and making the best choices at all times. I don't think anyone ever thought they were...

Scientists have shown that we only use 10% of our time!

0thomblake9yI'm totally going to quote that out of context.
0RichardKennaway9yI look forward to seeing it asserted everywhere. Note to future digital archaeologists: the grandparent is the Original Source of the meme!
0sixes_and_sevens9yI'm now curious as to what the most ludicrous "we only use 10% of our X" snowclone would be.
4TheOtherDave9yWe only use 10% of our ability to generate entirely fictitious statistics?
3gwern9yThat should be easy to do. The truth is, we only use 10% of the volume our atoms take up.
0Prismattic9yI'm fond of "87% of statistics are simply made up". I have no idea whether it is ludicrous or not, or in which direction it errs.

an outside observer would conclude that I'm a wasting time maximizer via revealed preference. I'm okay with this.

Suppose that today two bad things happen:

1) The plane you took to come home gets stuck on the runway for 5 hours.

2) An earthquake in a country you had previously never heard of kills 50,000 people.

Tonight your mom calls to ask how your day went. You respond by saying it was terrible. She asks why. What do you tell her? If the answer is (1) then you are probably not wasting your time when you engage in leisure activities.

(Although I would answer (1) I did give $100 to AMF last year.)

As Adam Smith said:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was

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7Nick_Tarleton9yI see your point, but why should my preferences all-things-considered necessarily track my emotional responses in this way?
0James_Miller9yYour emotions reveal what you really care about. Pretend you are under the impression that you care more about X than Y. You are also under the impression that you have never faced a trade-off between X and Y. I believe you have a bias view of your own preferences. I prove this by presenting a hypothetical situation in which you recognize you would be much more bothered by losing 1 Y than 50,000 X. I have thus showed that your initial views about X and Y are bias. The bias revealed, you now realize that you do value Y a lot more than X.
3wedrifid9yIf I have a conflict between my emotional reactions and my explicit believed preference I can resolve that disagreement any way I please. Emotions do not need to dominate. For example a particularly strong desire for Joe to be dead doesn't mean I actually have to decide that I want him dead.
0James_Miller9yBut for the analogy to work: (a) you were under the impression that you loved Joe, (b) you in fact hated Joe, (c) your actions were consistent with (b), and (d) the hypothetical choice convinced you of (b).
0wedrifid9yThat just isn't true. In fact it doesn't seem to me like a single one of those premises is necessary. Nick's point just seems blatantly obvious to me.
5benelliott9yThis is not at all inconsistent. You can perfectly well say "I value my own life more than other people's, but I still value other people's lives a non-zero amount", and since spending on personal pleasure runs into diminishing returns such a value could well result in donating some but not all of your money.
1[anonymous]9yThis reminds me of the only worthwhile article on Cracked.com [http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html].
1thomblake9yI would upvote the link, but I heartily disagree that is the only worthwhile article.
1[anonymous]9yHeh, you're right. I was just echoing the stereotype of Cracked that it's all inaccurate and hyperbole, and that was wrong of me. Many, but not all, of the articles are overstated but most times the hyperbole is only there for comedic value. Most of David Wong's stuff is really good.

This is trivial and useless. It's obvious without math that if you spend time helping people instead of having fun, more people will be helped and you will have less fun. This is a trade off that almost no one makes or will make. In the time it took me to to reply to this post, I could've gone to AMF and donated money via paypal, but I didn't. Did you? How much money do you have in your bank account and why isn't it in AMF's bank account?

4James_Miller9yNo, it's the kind of example a professor of economics might tell his students when explaining opportunity costs or when trying to convince them that deep down they really are very self-interested.
8drethelin9yIf someone posted an explanation of Pythagoras' theorem, I wouldn't upvote that either, however useful it is to middle school students.
4fortyeridania9yThat is not a comparable example. Pythagoras' theorem is not relevant to this site. By contrast, altruism and optimal charity are frequent topics of discussion on this site.
2thomblake9yAnd yet an explanation of Bayes' theorem gets referenced and linked commonly.
0drethelin9yMy standard for top level posts is a little higher than my standard for comments.
0thomblake9yActually the one I'm thinking of is an off-site article [http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes], but if it was here it would be a post to main. And there's a main post [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2b0/bayes_theorem_illustrated_my_way] explaining the same thing, that was rather well-received.
3fortyeridania9yThis is true, but it is not the only point of the post. I thought the post was an attempt to quantify these consequences--to find the marginal cost (in lives) of time. Isn't this a more worthwhile pursuit than the one you've cited? I assumed this was the impetus for the post. The author must know this already, or s/he would not have titled the post so provocatively.
0nebulous9yIt is obvious that the trade off is there--I thought that people weren't taking the option of helping people at their own expense because they didn't know that that option caused more benefit overall than the option of having fun at others' expense. The reason that people who know about efficient charity aren't helping people at their own expense is instead apparently an objection to utilitarianism in general. I had thought before posting that most people at Less Wrong were utilitarians. As for your questions, I'm a high school student, so I want to spend my money on college to increase my chances of making much more money later in life so that I can donate more to efficient charities.
7thomblake9ySome amateur etymology, for those enamored of distinctions: Most people here seem to be consequentialists, and consequentialism is merely the view that an action's goodness is defined by its outcome. Most are also 'utilitarians', seemingly meaning that they believe expected utility maximization is the correct metric for ranking outcomes, where 'utility' refers simply to the output of an agent's utility function. Probably most are also 'altruists', where altruism is the view that doing good things for others is good for oneself. This is a departure from how the terms are used in the ethical literature. There, 'utilitarianism' tends to refer to an agent-neutral consequentialist moral theory; that is, my survival doesn't matter any more than yours. Also, 'altruism' in ethics refers to a theory that looks just like utilitarianism but discounts the agent entirely; think Christian self-sacrifice. Our use of the term 'utility' has its roots in game theory, decision theory, and economics; our 'utilitarianism' seems to be an offshoot of that. Our use of the term 'altruism' seems to come from anthropology by way of evolutionary psychology.
2cata9yUtilitarianism isn't a synonym for altruism. You can be a utilitarian and value your own happiness above that of others.
4thomblake9yIt's worth noting that this is a departure from the way these terms are commonly used in the ethics literature.
0cata9yYou're right, thanks for pointing that out.
1nebulous9yAh, thank you. Now I know more proper uses of the words "utilitarian" and "altruist", that should help me communicate. Edit: Just read thomblake's comment. Now I'm back to using "utilitarian" to mean "altruistic value-maximizer".


What's the point of keeping seven-digit precision? Especially in spite of the fact that your calculation includes a disproportionately rough guess of "an average age of ten", another fact that the life expectancy estimates from different sources can differ up to 10% from each other and the problematic assumption that if you save a ten-year old child, his or her expected survival time is equal to the country's life expectancy minus ten? (The data of life expectancy are usually given at birth. Poor countries have usually relatively high... (read more)

6nebulous9yI refrained from rounding until the end so that if people were following my calculations starting from partway through they would arrive at the same answers. It wasn't really necessary, and now that you mention it it does raise questions about significant digits, so I'll round midway figures for display in the future. Good point on the life expectancy being given for people currently born. I'll edit the post to use life expectancy figures from ten years ago.
4prase9yIf this is motivated by desire for trustworthiness, linking to the source of the life expectancy figures should have higher priority. (Also, how did you calculate the average? Weighed by overall population of those countries, population under ten, number of AMF clients, simply averaging the four numbers, ... ?) If you used the ten years old data, you would most probably obtain lower expected age at death for today's ten-years olds* than for today's newborns. But it should be higher. The problem is not that the life expectancy changes during the time. The problem is that the life expectancy at birth is average of life times of all people born, while the life expectancy at age of ten is average of life times* of all people that survived until this age. The latter is higher than the former, since all children who died before their tenth birthday (and who lower the former average) are excluded from the statistics. In e.g. Zambia, about 11% of children die before age of five [http://www.childinfo.org/mortality_ufmrcountrydata.php], so you can imagine how this influences the discussed difference. (I was unable to quickly find data for this to illustrate the difference explicitly.) * Note that life expectancy at age x usually means the expected remaining time of life, not the expected age of death (which obviously is obtained from the former by adding x). (Edited.)
0nebulous9yI simply averaged the four numbers on those countries. I'll edit the post to have a weighted average by number of nets distributed. I don't know how to account for disproportionate early deaths in my calculations, since I don't have data on the typical lifespan of, for instance, a Zambian who survives childhood.
0prase9yJust to be clear: I am not objecting that your numbers are imprecise. Your argument doesn't require precision. I have objected to incompatible levels of precision involved in the presentation: rough guesses and systematic errors of order 10% or more (some of them unavoidable) on the one hand and five-decimal figures on the other hand.
1thomblake9yNote that basing precision on powers of ten is not particularly well-motivated. It arguably makes sense in the sciences where SI is used, but not in general.
0prase9yWriting 38 instead of 38.81755 saves 6 characters, if nothing else. Keeping unnecessarily many decimals also creates impression of a high precision figure which was misleading here. I am not sure what SI and sciences have to do with that; we use the decimal system for writing numbers, our language is adopted to the decimal system (which is why it may be even preferable to say 40 instead of 38 in the present context - it's shorter when said aloud) and SI is decimal because of these facts, not the other way around.
1thomblake9ySorry, by using the word 'precision' I thought you were invoking the concept of 'significant figures', which is used to correctly represent the amount of information in your answer, based on the maximum precision of your instruments. I would argue that in general, binary significant figures are better for that purpose than decimal. The reason SI is relevant to that, is that the measurements you take tend to be on instruments that are precise to a particular decimal digit. Compare to US units, which are often divided successively in half and thus are much more naturally amenable to binary.
1prase9yBinary significant figures are better for measuring amount of information, no doubt. But since the numbers are written in the decimal base it is easier to work with decimal significant figures; the 'instruments' for measuring life expectancy are statistical surveys which are usually conducted in base 10 (although the units are years, which aren't particularly SI).

I had more ideas for Less Wrong posts, including an argument that donating to charity is more beneficial than paying for cryonics, but that assumes that the reader is altruistic. Since most people on Less Wrong are apparently not altruists, should I go ahead and post "For altruists, AMF > cryonics" here, or should I keep altruism-assuming arguments for some community more typically altruistic, like Felicifia?

6thomblake9yI'm not actually sure that's true. Though those of us who are were probably completely unimpressed with this article, as we've already been familiar with Givewell (for example) for years.
3curiousepic9yMake the posts, just abstract the language up one level, as you suggest.
0juliawise9yI'd like to see it.

This post uses math to show how working a job and donating the resultant money to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) is more beneficial than recreation.

Sounds like donating to the AMF would be valuable for the specific individuals who would get mozzie nets and less valuable to me. The extent to which other people choose to value dontations to the third world relative to their own interests is frankly none of your business. This isn't a fundamentalist utilitarian cult where we get to admonish each other for not being optimized perfect altruists. (Or to otherwise make presumptions on other people's terminal values.)

3jsteinhardt9ywedrifid, to the extent that your terminal values affect your actions and hence the effect of your actions on the value of my utility function, they are my business (in the same sense that your religion is my business). I generally won't be an asshole about it, but for instance the extent to which I care about helping you achieve your goals probably depends on the extent to which I think those goals line up with mine. (FWIW, I'm definitely not a perfect altruist either.)
3wedrifid9yOf course they are your business in the sense that knowledge about my utility function alters your game theoretic incentives when it comes to dealing with me. When it comes down to it you may need to throw down [http://lesswrong.com/lw/90l/welcome_to_less_wrong_2012/5kl7] and use social or physical force against me. And yet it remains the case that telling me what my preferences are (in any sense except an assertion that I incorrectly model myself) is a straightforward intellectual error. In most social environments that aren't cults it is also considered rather rude to tell other people what their preferences are. If you violate my personal conceptual territory by telling me what I do, or must, intrinsically value then you can should expect to be told to because you are being a . It is (if done particularly aggressively) a rather degrading act, somewhat along the lines of 'objectification' - it acts to remove the recipients independent identity and relevance as an agent of personal social-political relevance. When playing chess and I capture your queen in such a way as I guarantee that I can achieve checkmate in 7 it is ridiculous to tell me that I have just made a bad move. I can be assumed* to be implicitly valuing winning the chess game. It takes a rather esoteric reinterpretation of language to say that I am making a bad move due to it not being a move that achieves your goals. It would just mean that you would have to invent new words for the purpose of communicating with others. * Barring exceptional external circumstances. I recall, for example, a (cricket) World Cup wherein it was in Australia's best interest to lose a particular game in order to be in a better place to win the series.
-1RobertLumley9yPlease explain what you mean by this. What is "my business" and what isn't "my business", and what makes it that way? "None of your business" seems like a label you've made up for "Things I don't want you to question me on".
-1wedrifid9yAmong other things, I'm saying that telling people (or aggressively making assumptions about) what their terminal values must be is an error that is intellectual and/or social in nature. That is what this post does. Really? I don't think you are being reasonable. I didn't make up the label for a start. I was speaking colloquial English.
-2RobertLumley9yThe majority of discussion on LW is at least intellectual in nature and often social in nature as well.
1wedrifid9yGiving you the benefit of the doubt I assume you are responding to an edit where I left out a word in there somewhere? The current comment is:
4RobertLumley9yAh, yes. That would make more sense. I was very confused. :-) Thanks for responding, or I wouldn't have noticed you edited it and would have just looked like a buffoon. You didn't make up the label, certainly. You're right, I shouldn't have said that. But that is what I interpret that label as, as it is used in colloquial English. I don't at all disagree with your point, "none of your business" is just defensive language that I find that people use when they don't want to justify something that they have no justification for.
3wedrifid9yIt is something people use when people ask for information that they do not have a right to have, asked for justifications that the recipient should not be expected to give or give advice or make demands that they do not have the power or right to make. In many cases responding with a justification instead of "none of your business" or an equivalent rejection is a social mistake that just encourages more dominance displays and boundaryless behavior on the part of whoever is making the presumption.
2RobertLumley9yMy experience is otherwise. But if that's how you meant it, fair.