(cross-posted from my blog, Sunday Stopwatch)

This may be trivial but I didn't see it written down explicitly anywhere, so I'm writing it. There's a specific trick I've noticed that some people do that makes for better conversations, and I don't know if there's a name for it, but I think there should be, so I nominate taking a simplified model.

Say that you want to figure out some big societal issue, like how taxes should work, or how much people should be paid, or how much of a company should belong to the founder, and how much to the workers.

The usual way to go about this is to launch into specifics or into generalities. You either talk about the tax situation in, I don't know, post-war Netherlands and how the price of oil affected the shipping industry which then led to something which led to something else - I'm just fabricating stuff, but you know, a line of reasoning where you extract some lesson from highly specific events.

Or you talk about very general principles - like, we should all be treated equally, or we should reward those with ingenuity and drive, stuff like that.

But the cool trick is taking a simplified model: e.g. imagining a society of only ten people. And then running through the combinations, maybe extracting lessons. For example:

  • Imagine that in this society, John accidentally discovers oil (or an imaginary resource, doesn't matter). John works hard and makes life better for the rest of the society. How should he be rewarded (if at all)?
  • Imagine that John doesn't work very hard, but is just the first person out of many who might have plausibly discovered this new resource. Does this change anything?
  • Imagine that John works on this project single-handedly but wants to leave his heritage not to the village but to his two sons. How do we feel about that?

And so on. This works for a broad set of questions, and I've found that taking a simplified model always brings clarity. The trick is that it doesn't work in highly soldier-like debates, where such hypotheticals might be perceived as gotchas. But when trying to figure things out, reducing the number of variables works really good. You answer a simpler question, and only then make the question more like real life.


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e.g. imagining a society of only ten people

Societies significantly above Dunbar's number have fundamentally different dynamics than those below it. I have lived in both, having attended a boarding high school in a remote location with a population of 120. I think a lot of suffering and inefficiency in modern society is caused by trying to apply sub-Dunbar logic to super-Dunbar groups.

But surely there are not *only* differences, right? Some features of sub-Dunbar groups generalize to super-Dunbar groups. I want to know the full Venn diagram; otherwise I would lose a tool which may on average be more useful (e.g. there may be more useful similarities for my particular interests than there are for your interests).

I don't mean this only for group sizes, but good point, there could be a qualitative difference and simplifying is actually fundamentally changing the topic.

I don't know, I still feel like it helps me figure out the core of a problem. However, I agree that asking if a proposed solution scales is important for the types of issues I listed in the examples.

Do you have any examples in mind?

One thing is that it's much harder to blatantly steal from the commons in sub-Dunbar groups, because everyone knows everyone else, so formal norm-enforcement (police, RAs) is unnecessary. Social sanctions suffice. Despite students having high variance in family income, property theft was a non-issue. In high school, I could save myself one of the good seats in the library by leaving my laptop there, but if I did the same thing here in the engineering library (I go to UIUC, a large state college), my laptop would likely be taken within minutes. There is an asabiyyah in small groups that does not exist for larger ones.

What is the mechanism, exactly? How do things unfold differently in high school vs. college with the laptop if someone attempts to steal it?

It's probably because it's much easier to steal from somebody you don't know. When everyone knows everyone, little theft occurs.

Even if the thief and victim don't care about each other, others very quickly know that X recently had a laptop stolen and are primed to find used laptop sales pretty suspicious.

Of course, this really only works if the thief actually cares. My particular high school year had a student very well known for theft around the school including blatant grabbing stuff and running while in plain sight. It never really did him any good, and did him plenty of harm, but he kept doing it anyway.

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