The Law of Least Effort Contributes to the Conjunction Fallacy

by curi3 min read9th Aug 202053 comments

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Social & Cultural DynamicsSocial StatusRationality
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Continuing the theme that the “Conjunction Fallacy” experimental results can be explained by social dynamics, let’s look at another social dynamic: the Law of Least Effort (LoLE).

(Previously: Can Social Dynamics Explain Conjunction Fallacy Experimental Results? and Asch Conformity Could Explain the Conjunction Fallacy.)

The Law of Least Effort says:

the person who appears to put the least amount of effort out, while getting the largest amount of effort returned to him by others, comes across as the most socially powerful.

In other words, it’s higher status to be chased than to chase others. In terms of status, you want others to come to you, rather than going to them. Be less reactive than others.

Visible effort is a dominant issue even when it’s easy to infer effort behind the scenes. Women don’t lose status for having publicly visible hair and makeup which we can infer took two hours to do. You’re not socially permitted to call them out on that pseudo-hidden effort. Similarly, people often want to do learning and practice privately, and then appear good at stuff in front of their friends. Even if you can infer that someone practiced a bunch in private, it’s often socially difficult to point that out. Hidden effort is even more effective when people can’t guess that it happened or when it happened in the past (particularly childhood).

To consider whether LoLE contributes to the Conjunction Fallacy experimental results, we’ll consider three issues:

  1. Is LoLE actually part of the social dynamics of our culture?
  2. If so, would LoLE be active in most people while in the setting of Conjunction Fallacy research?
  3. If so, how would LoLE affect people’s behavior and answers?

Is LoLE Correct Today?

LoLE comes from a community where many thousands of people have put a large effort into testing out and debating ideas. It was developed to explain and understand real world observations (mostly made by men in dating settings across many cultures), and it’s stood up to criticism so far in a competitive environment where many other ideas were proposed and the majority of proposals were rejected.

AFAIK LoLE hasn’t been tested in a controlled, blinded scientific setting. I think academia has ignored it without explanation so far, perhaps because it’s associated groups/subcultures that are currently being deplatformed and cancelled.

Like many other social dynamics, LoLE is complicated. There are exceptions, e.g. a scientist or CEO may be seen positively for working hard. You’re sometimes socially allowed to put effort into things you’re “passionate” about or otherwise believed to want to work hard on. But the broad presumption in our society is that people dislike most effort and avoid it when they can. Putting in effort generally shows weakness – failure to avoid it.

And like other social dynamics, while the prevalence is high, not everyone prioritizes social status all the time. Also, people often make mistakes and act in low social status ways.

Although social dynamics are subtle and nuanced, they aren’t arbitrary or random. It’s possible to observe them, understand them, organize that understanding into general patterns, and critically debate it.

Is there a rival theory to LoLE? What else would explain the same observations in a different way and reject LoLE? I don’t know of something like that. I guess the main alternative is a blue pill perspective which heavily downplays the existence or importance of social hierarchies (or makes evidence-ignoring claims about them in order to virtue signal) – but that doesn’t make much sense in a society that’s well aware of the existence and prevalence of social climbing, popularity contests, cliques, ingroups and outgroups, etc.

Would LoLE Be Active For Conjunction Fallacy Research?

People form habits related to high status behaviors. For many, lots of social behavior and thinking is intuitive and automatic before high school.

People don’t turn off social status considerations without a significant reason or trigger. The Conjunction Fallacy experiments don’t provide participants with adequate motivation to change or pause their very ingrained social-status-related habits.

Even with a major reason and trigger, like Coronavirus, we can observe that most people still mostly stick to their socially normal habits. If people won’t context switch for a pandemic, we shouldn’t expect it for basically answering some survey questions.

It takes a huge effort and established culture to get scientists to be less social while doing science. And even with that, my considered opinion is that over 50% of working scientists don’t really get and use the scientific, rationalist mindset. That’s one of the major contributors to the replication crisis.

How Would LoLE Affect Answers?

Math and statistics are seen as high effort. They’re the kinds of things people habitually avoid due to LoLE and as well as other social reasons (e.g. they’re nerdy). So people often intuitively avoid that sort of thinking even if they could do it.

Even many mathematicians or statisticians learn to turn that mindset off when they aren’t working because it causes them social problems.

LoLE encourages people to try to look casual, chill, low effort, even a little careless – the opposite of tryhard. The experimental results of Conjunction Fallacy research fit these themes. Rather than revealing a bias regarding how people are bad at logic, the results may simply reveal that social behavior isn’t very logical. Behaving socially is a different thing than being biased. It’s not just an error. It’s a prioritization of social hierarchy issues over objective reality issues. People do this on purpose and I don’t think we’ll be able to understand or address the issues without recognizing the incentives and purposefulness involved.

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