This is very likely my most important idea, and I've been trying to write about it for years, but it's too important to write about it badly, so I haven't ever mustered the courage. I guess I'll just do a quick test round.
It starts with this "hierarchy of needs" model, first popularized my Maslow, that we humans tend to focus on one need at the time.
- If you're hungry, you don't care about aesthetics that much
- If you are competing for status, you can easily be tempted to defect on coordination problems
I like to model this roughly as an ensemble of subagents, with a power ordering. Each subagent has their say. Some are much more powerful than others, but they won't make use of their power if they're satisfied, in which case less prominent subagents get to decide.
As in, you're walking on the street thinking about math, but then a bus nearly hits you, so your much more powerful safety-oriented subagent takes over control, and you forget about math for a while.
Or you're thinking about math because it's interesting, but then you have to compete for tenure, and your status-seeking career-survivalist subagent kicks in, and starts thinking about problems that are prestigious but not that interesting.
And so your subagents take turns, and it's always the turn of the subagent that is oriented towards the most prominent unsatisfied need.
I have thought a lot about what constitutes "satisfaction". At what point does a subagent let go of the reins because it's achieved what it wants? I've found a few different possibilities:
- Something biologically hardcoded. i.e. you're satiated from your meal, or it's warm enough, or whatever. This isn't a very interesting case.
- You run out of perceived opportunity.
In that sense, as I've said before, human beings really are satisficers. They will stop optimizing for something if they don't see any possible way to get more of it. They run out of perceived opportunity.
But here's the kicker: in this globalist hyper-connected century, we don't really run out of perceived opportunity anymore. What does happen, is that we're perpetually stuck with motivations that people in the past would have perceived as morally depraved. These are motivations for which there used to be much less to gain. Motivations for which everyone used to be satisfied, because there was much less to compare oneself with.
This is especially problematic when it comes to our subagent that perceives status.
Status has a bad rap for a good reason. It makes us compete. It cuts us off from good and healthy things. The subagent that pursues status is more prominent than the subagent that pursues that vague blob of things we call names like wholesomeness, happiness, love, and humanity (Maslow called it self-actualisation).So how do we stop the status subagent? By removing our opportunity for status altogether. I have the suspicion that healthy, high-trust cultures tend to make status as predictable and as hard to change as possible:
- We don't talk about money to reduce the incentive to make a lot of it for the sake of status.
- Healthy groups of friends tend to occasionally bully the most successful person in the group to keep everyone on the same level
- The institution of marriage is meant to lock in your romantic success indefinitely, so your sexually competitive subagent is forever silent.
- Bragging bad.
- Many societies tend to award status based on seniority, or the amount of years you've been around. This reduces turnover, which is a proxy for opportunity, but it also makes it impossible to change your level of status. I've seen this in my fraternity, but also in my local buddhist temple.
- The stereotypical woman usually hates it when men brag about their conquests, because it creates an incentive to get laid for the wrong reasons. In other words, she would rather engage with someone who is optimizing for self-actualization as opposed to status.
All of this is some kind of reduction of (perceived) opportunity. More precisely, all of these things reduce the perceived reward of making active steps towards status. They kill the competition trigger.
If you're thinking about designing patterns that create cooperation, this idea should be front and center in your mind.
Moloch feeds on opportunity.