Changing Systems is Different than Running Controlled Experiments - Don’t Choose How to Run Your Country That Way!

by ShannonFriedman 4 min read11th Jun 2013260 comments

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Trigger warning: Discussion of rape.

Example 1:

Say that each morning you tell yourself that you are lazy for not wanting to get out of bed to go to work, as a way to convince yourself to get up. Perhaps if the only variable you changed was to lower your level of guilt, you might not get out of bed to go to work, and would instead take the day off. So if you are running a motivation system that uses guilt, feeling guilt may well be something you do not want to get rid of. If you got rid of the guilt but stopped going to work, that would likely be a net negative for your life.

To contrast, with animal training, you reinforce behavior you want in the animal, and interrupt, redirect, or completely ignore (ie: no shaming or guilting) behavior you don't want. It's also a similar methodology that meditation uses. When you meditate, you are told to focus on a meditative object such as the breath. When your mind wanders from the meditative object, you are instructed to just return your attention to the meditative object, and to not in any way punish yourself for having wandered. Also, you are instructed to not punish yourself for punishing yourself for having your mind wander. Meditation does not use reward during the meditative process, although it's common to sound a beautiful chime which will give hedons at the end of a session, and people often perform a pleasant ritual before and/or after meditation that builds positive association with the activity of meditating. Example page of meditation instructions.

So, if you switch to a positive reinforcement motivational system, such as that which animal trainers use to train dogs, then guilt is counter-productive for motivation, because it is a form of punishment.

Example Summary:

If you only change one variable from a motivation system that uses guilt, then it may break the system, and be a net negative. However, there is likely a way to get a net utility gain by changing several variables of the system, such as by switching to a positive reinforcement based system where you add instant rewards that increase hedons and remove guilt and other punishments.

Example 2:

As it stands, there are many unreported rapes in American society. This excellent article debunks many myths about rape, including the classic myth that rapes are generally done by strangers using force:

A huge proportion of the women I know enough to talk with about it have survived an attempted or completed rape. None of them was raped by a stranger who attacked them from behind a bush, hid in the back of her car or any of the other scenarios that fit the social script of stranger rape. Anyone reading this post, in fact, is likely to know that six out of seven rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.

The author goes on to explain how most rapes are from repeat offenders who by a median age of 26.5, on average rape around 5-6 women each, and that it is almost always someone who was part of the woman's social circle, and intoxicants are usually used.

The suggestion of change of system that I got from this post is actually in the title of the blog: "Yes Means Yes."

If the social rules for consent are changed from "if a woman does not say no, then it may or may not be okay" to "it is only okay if a woman says yes," then the boundary becomes a lot more clear to both parties. It would be a pretty radical system change, that would make a lot of people uncomfortable.

To be more clear - with a "Yes Means Yes" system, you don't need to have "No Means No", because sex is only had when there is a Yes. If a woman is too drunk to say or enforce no, then she is also too drunk to say yes, and sex is not had unless there is explicit consent. Having a Yes Means Yes social policy would change the onus of responsibility for making sure that sex is consensual from the woman - who is obligated to say no if she doesn't want to - to both parties who must say yes to proceed. This would not stop all rape by any means, but if implemented in a system where people were taught good communication and assertiveness, it would cut down on it. For example, instead of feeling that it was her fault because she got drunk and didn't say no aggressively enough, a woman would realize quickly, "hey, I didn't say yes!" and a predatorial guy who was one of the small percentage of men who rape women would also realize that the woman would be less likely to just feel ashamed and keep quiet and would be more likely to take action to defend herself.

Perhaps some people would be afraid that they'd remain virgins for life in this system - some men might be afraid that they'd be too shy to ever ask, some women might not feel comfortable actually admitting that they want sex. And therefore, people of both genders might be resistant to switching systems because they would imagine the switch without a complete social system switch or training. And as it stands, perhaps a lot less sex would happen at first. A system like that would require retraining a lot of society to be more assertive.

Example Summary:

Just shifting one variable and telling men to say "I only have sex when women say yes" would be very weird. If a guy tried to implement that in the current system, some people might look at him like he was crazy or even get offended.

I think the "Yes Means Yes" system would work beautifully in a society that functioned based on a different system - where the social norm, which people were trained in, was to identify and state one's desires, and to not proceed without clarity. I do think it would cut down on rape, and unreported rape.

Overall Summary:

I've discovered that when talking to people about potential novel systems, that the most common response I get is for them to say why the alternative system won't work, based on what would happen if you changed one variable of the current system to be more like the novel system. Examples: "If I didn't feel guilty, I'd never get anything done," or "In a system where you always had to have a clear yes before having sex, people would feel really awkward and uncomfortable and opt out." (Alternatively I will often hear people justify alternative systems using similar arguments about single-variable changes.)

The examples above are a couple of the more simple examples of this general principle I've been observing quite a lot lately.

Consider how this applies to government systems, and other social systems. There are so many parts dependent on each other, that it is very hard to shift any single one without creating a domino effect of other shifts. So making any argument about how changing a single variable would fix or destroy a complex system like government is usually a huge oversimplification.

To quote Einstein:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

My thoughts on making large-scale change, are that you need to be thinking large scale. If you want to be a change maker, it is best to start small in your actions, study and experiment a lot. Focus your studies on success and failure scenarios as close as possible to what it is you want to effect, while as diverse as possible from each other.

Running single-variable experiments is important - it is just that it is only how you understand a little corner of the problem to be solved - that's not how you find the solution itself to a problem involving a complex system.

To give a biological analogy: Cancer is what happens when a single type of cell tries to become the whole system. Running a single-variable controlled experiment to determine what type of complex system you want to choose is like trying to determine the optimal form of cancer, as opposed to looking at an entire entity. Life is complicated.

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