What resources have increasing marginal utility?

by Qiaochu_Yuan 5y14th Jun 20141 min read63 comments

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Most resources you might think to amass have decreasing marginal utility: for example, a marginal extra $1,000 means much more to you if you have $0 than if you have $100,000. That means you can safely apply the 80-20 rule to most resources: you only need to get some of the resource to get most of the benefits of having it.

At the most recent CFAR workshop, Val dedicated a class to arguing that one resource in particular has increasing marginal utility, namely attention. Initially, efforts to free up your attention have little effect: the difference between juggling 10 things and 9 things is pretty small. But once you've freed up most of your attention, the effect is larger: the difference between juggling 2 things and 1 thing is huge. Val also argued that because of this funny property of attention, most people likely undervalue the value of freeing up attention by orders of magnitude.

During a conversation later in the workshop I suggested another resource that might have increasing marginal utility, namely trust. A society where people abide by contracts 80% of the time is not 80% as good as a society where people abide by contracts 100% of the time; most of the societal value of trust (e.g. decreasing transaction costs) doesn't seem to manifest until people are pretty close to 100% trustworthy. The analogous way to undervalue trust is to argue that e.g. cheating on your spouse is not so bad, because only one person gets hurt. But cheating on spouses in general undermines the trust that spouses should have in each other, and the cumulative impact of even 1% of spouses cheating on the institution of marriage as a whole could be quite negative. (Lots of things about the world make more sense from this perspective: for example, it seems like one of the main practical benefits of religion is that it fosters trust.) 

What other resources have increasing marginal utility? How undervalued are they? 

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