Pragmatic Cutoffs

by Borasko5 min read7th Mar 20211 comment

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Practical
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[Just an Idea I’ve been thinking about, I would love some feedback on improving it, or any relevant studies over this I don’t know about]

"I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Sometimes I think social problems don’t matter as much, especially if I am not in direct control to change them. I can disagree with a politician, but if I don’t live in their district I’m going to usually jump to “I don’t care what they do because I have no power to enforce their actions”. Social Norming around common values / pointing out those who disagree with our values aside, I think most news day to day is a distraction. It matters only because people care about it, but if nobody cared about it then some obvious flaws in society would go unnoticed. We do need to catch false negatives but there are also many false positives that our attention latches onto and doesn’t seem to let go. Most events seem to be memory holed as well, I can usually ignore news because the issue de jour will be forgotten in a week, by almost everybody. But at the same time seeing some temporary news may be beneficial for a better model of long term trends of the world. But that loops back to if I can’t use any of that new information pragmatically, it almost becomes worthless knowledge. How do I better filter useless from useful? I understand I can’t truly decide what might be worthless and what might not be. Random viruses pop all the time, covid was known about in late  2019, few cared until it hit a certain threshold of importance. 

So I wonder at what point my threshold is set so that something becomes “useful”, as in I can use it to strengthen social ties, collect relevant world information, or actually use the knowledge for a project. This seems like it can be solved by Bayes updating, but since I have no clue how I usually weight my incoming stimulus, I’m lost for understanding.

I had recently read a page about a politician that seems to be doing things I don’t approve of. But considering that politician is far away it's tough for me to care. But considering politician problems seem to operate on social reality rather than physical reality, my response could change things. If everybody in the world wanted this politician gone, they would be gone. My help would eventually affect something, but right now I seem so many order of magnitudes away it's hard for me to care. However if I was in a higher social position or living under that politician my opposition to said politician could help move a network effect that gets everybody (within reason) to oppose them. This is a facile example, but I think at some base level this could work. How far from a social problem am I before a threshold is crossed and I no longer care about it, or care about contributing to a larger network effect? How can I with this understanding define that threshold? This is what I’m defining a pragmatic cutoff to be, where a person is so distanced from a problem they can’t care about. 

I don’t have the resources to care for every grievance, and having an idea of where that threshold might cut off would be useful in future situations. Even if that usefulness is I just don’t feel bad about not caring about a social issue beyond my pragmatic cutoff. Pragmatic cutoffs are of course dynamic. I imagine if I lived during the civil rights era in a deeply oppressed place I might feel past my pragmatic cut off to do anything until activists in other parts of the country start changing the Overton window / environment until action is within the pragmatic boundary. 

Most of my understanding and ideas about social problems come through the news, so it seems it would be a good idea to keep track of my news consumption until I get a better idea of where my pragmatic cutoff might be currently located. So let's try to build a model that would help get close to that.

Just like most models I’ve found on here, if it’s going to improve your life you're probably gonna need to make a copy of the model yourself and run tests to see what works for you. Pragmatic cut-offs are of course personal, Just as risk aversion, cost/benefit, local norms, and a boatload of conscious and unconscious decision making heuristics come into play.

I’m guessing appropriate tests news intake

  • Does it help me fit in socially to know this?
  • Does it have a significant impact on how I model the world?
  • Does it help practically with something I’m currently involved in?
  • What area is this news involved in?
  • Does the increased consumption of the involved area decrease or increase mental health? Do I feel “okay” after long term exposure?
  • Do I need to add in an area of news to account for edge cases that might matter?

Eventually these criteria would become more intuitive, no reason to dive into the cost/benefits of every news piece or outlet. But it would probably be worth it to spend time watching the media you consume to get a better grasp of your values, what would actually benefit your life to know, and then iterating that process until you have media consumption that directly benefits you rather than feeling like a random walk.  I do plan on applying this model to myself. 

I realize after some more thinking that any intake by the senses could count as news. Like sights, sounds, noises, thoughts. It would probably be interesting to consciously apply a selective model to them like meditation, but I will keep this top level to just news consumption about social issues for now. 

So what do you think? What better criteria can be used to determine a pragmatic cutoff? How do you filter news without walling yourself off completely? 

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Maybe it'd help to list a few concrete examples where you think you could've made a better decision by paying attention to the news more, places you believe you made a good decision based on news, and places where you made bad decisions based on news. Then figure out what possible strategies you could have used to preserve the good decisions you made, minimizing the bad decisions, and maximizing the good decisions.