Can we prime people to take risk?

by tonyoconnor2 min read7th Nov 202011 comments

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Cross-posted from The Metasophist.


A key contributor to stagnation could be a growing reluctance to take risk. All creation involves risk, because when embarking on the journey you rarely know the result. As Paul Graham said, you might fear creating something "lame".

As society develops, it could become less attractive to take risk. For example, if you are musically inclined, learning and performing the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Wagner may deliver more instant rewards then creating your own musical forms. There is a large audience for the renowned, little for the unknown. In addition, someone like J.S. Bach could focus more on writing music, because he didn't have any of those four composers to listen to, and couldn't be paid for performing their works.

Similarly, as wealth grows, more people are employed to manage it. In a society with little wealth, financiers are few as there are fewer assets to trade. The mathematicians and engineers who become quants in our current age would actually have done maths and engineering in a poorer one.

These are two particular instances of a general problem whereby established paths are less risky and therefore more attractive than novel ones.

But without risk, no one will come up with new paradigms of knowledge and organisation. We need people to take risk to ward off stagnation. How can we encourage people to do so?

A potential answer to this question emerged in a conversation between Jim Rutt and Joscha Bach. Rutt cited a psychological experiment (Dutton and Aron, 1974) whereby those who just walked across a dangerous bridge were more likely to arrange a date with a member of the opposite sex immediately afterwards than those who walked over a safer bridge. The implication in the discussion is that doing something risky raises your willingness to take more risk.

In fact, Dutton and Arron state that this behaviour probably arises from what is known as the "Misattribution of Arousal". Essentially, going over a dangerous bridge induces physiological arousal, which the participant mistakes for romantic arousal. According to Allen et al., this effect even holds when someone is aware that the main source of arousal is non-romantic in nature.

Music can also induce physiological arousal: another study finds that women, but not men, were more likely to rate a man as attractive after listening to music. Interestingly, the study notes that "high-arousing, complex music yielded the largest effects". If excitation-transfer theory holds, the same dynamic would probably apply to exercise.

This may be interesting if one wants to raise the number of couples in society. But is there a link to risk-taking in areas such as business, politics and academia? There is some evidence that becoming aware of the neutral nature of arousal can boost confidence, and therefore also risk-taking, at least in the short-term. For example, one study says that arousal is just part of "gearing up" to do a task, and that this feeling is often wrongly attributed to diminished confidence. From the abstract (my emphasis):

"People's confidence that they will do well tends to diminish as the "moment of truth" draws near. We propose that this phenomenon stems in part from individuals using their pre-task arousal as a cue to their level of confidence. Arousal that is part and parcel of "gearing up" to perform a task may be misattributed to diminished confidence... Participants in two experiments who were encouraged to misattribute their arousal to a neutral source ("subliminal noise") expressed greater confidence in their ability than did participants not able to do so"

In this abstract, we have found what we are looking for, and it's slightly better than our starting point as it is much easier to attribute arousal to a normal part of doing a task than it is to find a dangerous bridge to walk across. In practice, this would be useful on a short-term horizon. For example, if you are an entrepreneur about to approach a potential customer or pitch to investors, you should attribute any nervousness to just part of doing a novel task rather than interpreting it as a sign you are about to do the coming task poorly. That could increase your confidence and reduce the probability you will abandon the effort.

Framing nervousness in this way may help people to take risk. But of course, taking a risk does not mean that it will always be successful.

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The cream of the crop that you want here comes from people that are not part of the orthodoxy. If that is the case then you need to examine how the unorthodox are treated in our society. If people are 'rewarded' for risk taking with denouncement and permanent exile then only the truly ignorant, reckless, or pig headed will take those risks.

If we look at how the unorthodox are currently censured then the two obvious candidates are the ability to speak freely and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Come up with a system that lets people speak without censorship and a system that lets people move money without restrictions and you'll have gone a very long way to increasing risk tasking.

Thanks.

While there is probably is value in getting the broader population to become more risk-tolerant, I agree with the general gist of your first point.

Regarding your second, something that prevents people from speaking freely is the fear that unorthodox opinions will prevent them rising in hierarchies where selection is performed by those above them. Most people like to be flattered and have unquestioning followers, and will promote those in turn. This could also be the case in non-organisational hierarchies, such as academia.  I try to address this problem in Ch. 6 of my book by designing a different mode of selection: one where those at the top have little or no power to decide who gets positions and resources. 

As for people moving money without restrictions, I haven't really thought about that very much. Is there a particular example you are thinking of?

something that prevents people from speaking freely is the fear that unorthodox opinions will prevent them rising in hierarchies where selection is performed by those above them.

  1. That maxim is entirely true.
  2. My gripe with restrictions on freedom of speech and commerce aren't about the followers. I want people that are hated to be able to speak and transact with those of like mind freely. I believe in the right of business to not employ or promote under their eves, I don't believe they should have the right to interfere in unrelated business. That strays into compelled service, and I've yet to see a good answer to that problem.

one where those at the top have little or no power to decide who gets positions and resources. 

Unless this is more profitable than standard models of business under capitalism it won't work. There's also the obvious problem that people are fundamentally hierarchical and won't tolerate a faux hierarchy (they'll replace it with an informal real hierarchy).

As for people moving money without restrictions, I haven't really thought about that very much. Is there a particular example you are thinking of?

Both Silicon Valley businesses and conventional banking services (via payment processing) routinely hamper or deny financial services to people they don't like. I could easily give you a laundry list of wrong thinkers that have been financially punished for it. Wikileaks is a good example of an organisation denied payment processing services for ideological unacceptability. Patreon is a good example of a Silicon Valley company that pushes a left wing view and will kill off the accounts of right wing people or groups (or more accurately, those denounced as right wing, whether they actually are or not). They are currently being legally pursued for tortious interference on those grounds (not exactly, but the principle is sound).

Again, this is a matter of compelled service. However, at this point the internet is both the public square and the public market. I am of the opinion that unless you are doing something demonstrably illegal or the vendor has an explicit legal prohibition on doing business with you then they should be forced to give you service. If you are following all reasonable rules then the fact that they don't like you should be insufficient on its own to deny service. A great deal of the internet is effectively utilities, and we have rules for utilities that differ from those that govern less critical services.

Of course, the ultimate solution is a fully encrypted platform. Whether or not that is technically achievable is unclear, but if it did exist it would probably kill off speech and financial gatekeeping overnight. The unfortunate side effect is that these kind of solutions are called good enough for paedophiles and terrorists for a solid reason.

Of course, the ultimate solution is a fully encrypted platform. Whether or not that is technically achievable is unclear, but if it did exist it would probably kill off speech and financial gatekeeping overnight.

It seems to me the problem is not that about technical achievability but economics. If you have a fully decentral communication service then it's hard to make money with that service. 

Silk Road did just fine to the tune of billions without true anonymity. You need to think more like a criminal when it comes to doing things that people don't want you doing. There's always a way.

If I put a BTC address in this comment you could send me money right now with no financial or government  intermediaries (what happens on your end to get that crypto and my end to turn it into fiat can be a different matter). If I were to put that address on an anonymous service it would be no different, just harder to track and censor it.

Silk Road did just fine to the tune of billions without true anonymity

Silk Road had a design where it's owner had the power to remove individual sellers. It's not structurally different when it comes to the ability to exclude people wanting to sell services that the owners don't like.

If I put a BTC address in this comment you could send me money right now with no financial or government  intermediaries 

We still live in a world where you complain about big tech having the ability to wield power by shutting down money transfer even when a killer was hired on Hydra to go after a law enforcement official. Hydra kicks you off the market when you fail their quality checks and isn't doesn't allow anyone to do anything as well.

If I were to put that address on an anonymous service it would be no different, just harder to track and censor it.

This shows that there's no technical obstacle in the way. The obstacles that do exist are due to big tech being able to provide much more user-friendly software because they can pay for it's development. 

We might have a future where people still develop the software we need for decentral communication but the reason we don't have that now is economics.

Publishing and financial transactions aren't equivalent. The methods of control and attack aren't the same. The methods of routing around those problems aren't the same either.

In an anonymous system there are no governing owners. You have your private key to modify your data, and your data goes into a giant blob of everyone's data. The only viable attacks on that are compromising your key or destroying the entire network. The downside of these types of systems is that they're typically mesh based and perform like trash as a result. They're vulnerable to endpoint attacks and other weaknesses because they run on top of the internet and it's protocols and therefore inherit security and structural flaws from it. The real issue is that true anonymity is a very difficult problem that we haven't solved and may never solve.

I don't complain about murder for hire, terrorism, paedophiles, or any of the other sick shit that you can buy on the web. Pick your poison: you can have the government or business be more of the bad actors or you can have private individuals be more of the bad actors. I prefer the government actually have to police crime rather than go on fishing trips and various other chicanery. It's almost like people have forgotten that policing actually happened prior to the internet existing and that bugging everyone isn't necessary. The governments of the world can already read everything you ever wrote and crime still exists. The panopticon doesn't make us safer.

If you are using social media then anonymity isn't for you as an end user. You are telling facebook et al. everything about yourself and your social networks in exchange for an anger based dopaminergic drip feed. Anonymity is for people that are doing things that government or corporations don't want them doing. Sometimes the reasons for government not wanting people to do certain things are valid, but they have recourse to policing and intelligence services so that's enough IMO. If corporations have a problem with people doing things they don't like then I don't give a damn. Be a better company and people will give you money. I want people to be able to speak freely and I'm willing to accept the price tag for that, many are not and I can respect their reasons.

The profit motive is good at lots of things but it's never going to be good enough at shanking every government, every wealthy oligarch, and every big corporation in the world simultaneously to give us perfect anonymity. Every single government on the planet will down their telecommunications networks and go door to door looking for users before they let that kind of technology happen. You only have to look at how governments feel about VPNs and ordinary encryption to see how uncomfortable they are with people being able to act in secret. If perfect anonymity happens, it will likely be by accident.

The internet isn't perfect but it's resilient enough that billion dollar companies like Elsivier can't bring down sci-hub after years of fighting it. Wikileaks even still has their original URL. 

That's not where the practical problems of implementing alternate infrastructure lie.

What has happened to the people running those sites?

Alexandra Elbakyan is in hiding in Russia and has their protection thanks to be vocally anti-Western. She could easily be the victim of changing political winds.

Assange is rotting in UK prison right now awaiting his extradition and show trial. I don't know how long he'll be preserved by the Americans (or if they even can, his health is apparently very poor) for political reasons but he will almost certainly die in prison.

In my very first comment in this thread I raised this, and I'll raise it again: you can easily speak if you are prepared to burn everything you have to the ground. Happens to people all the time by accident when they say things in good faith not understanding how others will interpret that. It definitely happens to people that whistleblow or challenge orthodoxy.

The bigger the entity you go after the bigger they will come down on you. The only viable defence an individual can ever have against that is anonymity. When even a government cannot truly protect you (WITSEC, intelligence services, etc.) then good luck protecting yourself when nobody gives a damn about you and your enemies know who you are.

Given that Wikileaks is quite capable of publishing without Assange, most of the people running Wikileaks are free. I don't have information about the current size of that team but they seem to be functional without Assange. Both the leak about the investigation into the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack and the Fishrot files are examples that people don't want published. 

Assange isn't free because he thought it was valuable for PR reasons for Wikileaks to have spoke people that aren't anonymous and not because anonymisation technology doesn't work. 

I'm not sure why Alexandra Elbakyan made the decision not to be anonymous but I haven't heared that stories of it being due to anonymisation tech failing. 

Thanks for elaborating.

I agree with the point about utilities, and the fact that for utility-like services (more specifically, those with overwhelming network effects and economies of scale) it should be illegal to prevent access unless the person to whom service is being denied is doing something illegal.