The Great Firewall of China. A massive system of centralized censorship purging the Chinese version of the Internet of all potentially subversive content. Generally agreed to be a great technical achievement and political success even by the vast majority of people who find it morally abhorrent.
I spent a few days in China. I got around it at the Internet cafe by using a free online proxy. Actual Chinese people have dozens of ways of getting around it with a minimum of technical knowledge or just the ability to read some instructions.
The Chinese government isn't losing any sleep over this (although they also don't lose any sleep over murdering political dissidents, so maybe they're just very sound sleepers). Their theory is that by making it a little inconvenient and time-consuming to view subversive sites, they will discourage casual exploration. No one will bother to circumvent it unless they already seriously distrust the Chinese government and are specifically looking for foreign websites, and these people probably know what the foreign websites are going to say anyway.
Think about this for a second. The human longing for freedom of information is a terrible and wonderful thing. It delineates a pivotal difference between mental emancipation and slavery. It has launched protests, rebellions, and revolutions. Thousands have devoted their lives to it, thousands of others have even died for it. And it can be stopped dead in its tracks by requiring people to search for "how to set up proxy" before viewing their anti-government website.
I was reminded of this recently by Eliezer's Less Wrong Progress Report. He mentioned how surprised he was that so many people were posting so much stuff on Less Wrong, when very few people had ever taken advantage of Overcoming Bias' policy of accepting contributions if you emailed them to a moderator and the moderator approved. Apparently all us folk brimming with ideas for posts didn't want to deal with the aggravation.
Okay, in my case at least it was a bit more than that. There's a sense of going out on a limb and drawing attention to yourself, of arrogantly claiming some sort of equivalence to Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky. But it's still interesting that this potential embarrassment and awkwardness was enough to keep the several dozen people who have blogged on here so far from sending that "I have something I'd like to post..." email.
Companies frequently offer "free rebates". For example, an $800 television with a $200 rebate. There are a few reasons companies like rebates, but one is that you'll be attracted to the television because it appears to have a net cost only $600, but then filling out the paperwork to get the rebate is too inconvenient and you won't get around to it. This is basically a free $200 for filling out an annoying form, but companies can predict that customers will continually fail to complete it. This might make some sense if you're a high-powered lawyer or someone else whose time is extremely valuable, but most of us have absolutely no excuse.
One last example: It's become a truism that people spend more when they use credit cards than when they use money. This particular truism happens to be true: in a study by Prelec and Simester1, auction participants bid twice as much for the same prize when using credit than when using cash. The trivial step of getting the money and handing it over has a major inhibitory effect on your spending habits.
I don't know of any unifying psychological theory that explains our problem with trivial inconveniences. It seems to have something to do with loss aversion, and with the brain's general use of emotion-based hacks instead of serious cost-benefit analysis. It might be linked to akrasia; for example, you might not have enough willpower to go ahead with the unpleasant action of filling in a rebate form, and your brain may assign it low priority because it's hard to imagine the connection between the action and the reward.
But these trivial inconveniences have major policy implications. Countries like China that want to oppress their citizens are already using "soft" oppression to make it annoyingly difficult to access subversive information. But there are also benefits for governments that want to help their citizens.
"Soft paternalism" means a lot of things to a lot of different people. But one of the most interesting versions is the idea of "opt-out" government policies. For example, it would be nice if everyone put money into a pension scheme. Left to their own devices, many ignorant or lazy people might never get around to starting a pension, and in order to prevent these people's financial ruin, there is strong a moral argument for a government-mandated pension scheme. But there's also a strong libertarian argument against that idea; if someone for reasons of their own doesn't want a pension, or wants a different kind of pension, their status as a free citizen should give them that right.
The "soft paternalist" solution is to have a government-mandated pension scheme, but allow individuals to opt-out of it after signing the appropriate amount of paperwork. Most people, the theory goes, would remain in the pension scheme, because they understand they're better off with a pension and it was only laziness that prevented them from getting one before. And anyone who actually goes through the trouble of opting out of the government scheme would either be the sort of intelligent person who has a good reason not to want a pension, or else deserve what they get2.
This also reminds me of Robin's IQ-gated, test-requiring would-have-been-banned store, which would discourage people from certain drugs without making it impossible for the true believers to get their hands on them. I suggest such a store be located way on the outskirts of town accessible only by a potholed road with a single traffic light that changes once per presidential administration, have a surly clerk who speaks heavily accented English, and be open between the hours of two and four on weekdays.
1: See Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide. In fact, do this anyway. It's very good.
2: Note also the clever use of the status quo bias here.
And yet, it seems to me that those Chinese who don't know that it's safe to go around the government firewall may have no good way of finding out that it's safe.
Paranoia about how if they do they will get caught may be cultivated in them. How do they know what methods the government has.
Also, they may be made to think that there is something dirty or illicit, wrong or ugly about going outside official sources.
I am reminded of how effectively government propaganda in the US works on those teenagers who least need it and how ineffectively on those who most need it.
Also, penning in sheep is a lot easier than penning in wolves.
In fact, this reminds me of the magnetic traps (Penning traps?) that are used to cool a couple of hundred atoms down to near-absolute zero. There is a potential barrier that keeps most of the atoms inside. Occasionally, one atom is jostled enough to gain enough energy to escape. This has the effect of carrying energy away from the group, cooling it as a whole.
I think the analogy is compelling. An activism that works off of a discontented fringe only serves to strengthen the current regime. To get real change, one needs to energize the populace as a whole, and often the only forces capable of such widespread influence have economic and deep cultural foundations. Both Gandhi and MLK knew this.
I think the Chinese government also knows this, but I am not sure they can exploit this in the long term.
I don't think "Not sending in your $200 rebate" and "not writing in an article to Overcomingbias" are the same phenomena at all.
It's not that people who are now writing all these LW posts felt like it was too much of a hassle to send an email to Overcomingbias; it's that deliberately and unusually sticking your neck out to contribute has a different social connotation than simply participating in the expected community behavior.
Contributing to Overcomingbias is like getting on stage: walking up to the stage is a socially loaded act in and of itself. "Hey, everyone, I'm going to stand out here and say something." Lesswrong, since the entire site is built around community posting, practically invites you to post as you please. There's nothing out of the ordinary about it. How could there be? The tools to do so are right there, embedded into the infrastructure of the site. It must be expected for me to do that!
Manual moderation is a big unknown - risk aversion means that you don't want your time spent writing to be wasted by some moderator deciding not to publish. And delay between writing and publishing is a problem too - you want feedback as soon as you wrote it while it's still fresh in your mind.
If people thought moderators would be very friendly, and very fast, that would matter less, but it's unusual expectation to have, even when it turns out to be true.
These are two very rational reasons why people post on LW and not OB.
I've felt for a long time that the same solution should be implemented for organ donation.
(Actually, there's a case to be made for "screw your sentimental attachment to your meat parts -- we can save lives". But soft paternalism is a start.)
Mandatory donation would really screw you over if you were trying for cryonics.
The process of vitrifying the head makes the rest of the body unsuitable for organ donations. If the organs are extracted first, then the large resulting leaks in the circulatory system make perfusing the brain difficult. If the organs are extracted after the brain is properly perfused, they've been perfused too, and with the wrong substances for the purposes of organ donation.
I agree with you 200%. I think a couple of countries in Europe might have that. I heard Brazil used to have it, but had to change it when stupid people got angry.
Organ donation is a tricky thing, and people don't think rationally when confronted with the death of a loved one.
I'm from Singapore, where we're automatically registered as organ donors and the majority of us are cremated after death, so organ donation shouldn't really be that much of an issue.
Sadly(?), medical science has advanced to the point where we can be kept "alive" despite being brain dead, and it is from these corpses that the organs with the best chance of a successful transplant can be obtained. It's hard to expect a family to accept organ donation when they can see that the loved one still has a heartbeat, even if the heartbeat is produced with the aid of life-support machines.
If the hospital takes a "screw you, you're stupid and we're taking your organs" attitude, the inevitable backlash has no winners and the law will end up changed. It took a lot of cajoling from our governmental mouthpieces to soothe public sentiment when that happened.
-- New York Times, The New, Soft Paternalism
Perhaps he feels twice as strongly (by some measure) about the issue than he estimates I do?
Huh. That actually makes sense. I withdraw my objection.
(Eric S. Raymond called me a "hyperintelligent pedantic bastard" at Penguicon 2009. I was flattered.)
Kieran Healy over at CrookedTImber presents evidence that, while opt-in vs. opt-out does make a difference to whether individuals agree to donate, this doesn't necessarily translate into differences in actual organ procurement rates, and argues that the real bottlenecks in many countries are organizational/logistical.
The apparent lesson: Don't assume that just by removing the obvious trivial obstacles, the problem will be solved. There may be less trivial obstacles lurking in the background.
P.S. Reading off the graphs, Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland all appear to have presumed consent.
I fear the massive levels of abuse it could bring -- the possibility that someone would commit suicide because their organs can take care of their family and they can't, that someone's organs could be used as collateral in a loan à la Merchant of Venice, and of course, the temptation to gain the organs of others by force..
On the other hand, I would question what the market value of various organs would stabilize at if everyone were allowed to participate. Perhaps there'd be more potential donors than participants and the prices would stabilize to a reasonable level, discouraging abuse.
Has anyone attempted an analysis on this issue?
Actually, what if it were handled through insurance? What if opting to donate decreased your health insurance premiums by an amount settled at by actuarial tables and the likelihood of your dying with usable organs etc. etc. and then your insurance company got to sell your organs when you died?
Only the last is an abuse. The preceding points were merely uses that you're uncomfortable with.
I wish people would get this straight. Just because you're uncomfortable or disapproving of a particular utilization of a right or ability doesn't constitute an abuse of that right or ability.
Even if another human life is saved in the process? That is after all the context here.
I don't really have a point here, but this shouldn't really be surprising at all, not at this moment in time.
I mean, has anyone here not used Wikipedia? (I'd also wager even odds that >=90% of you have edited WP at some point.)
EDIT: Looking back, it seems to me that what would not be surprising is, upon observing LW suddenly skyrocketing in contributors & contributed material, noticing that the sudden increase comes after a loosening of submission guidelines. When a site skyrockets, it's for one of a few reasons: being linked by a major site like Slashdot, for example. Loosening submission guidelines is one of those few reasons.
But that's not to say that Eliezer should have confidently expected a sudden increase just because he loosened submission criteria; the default prediction should have been that LW would continue on much as OB had been going. Lots of wikis never go anywhere, even if they let anyone edit.
Sometimes I actually catch myself reaching for the "edit this page" button when I find a typo or error on non-wiki websites.
Oh Wikipedia - that reminds me - in late 1990s before Wikipedia there was "Free Online Dictionary of Computing". The main difference between two was that you needed to email the moderators to get your changes included. The results were even more extreme than OB vs LW.
When the FOLDOC maintainer saw Wikipedia, he promptly gave up and said "use my stuff, you're already doing better" - this is why he released it under GFDL, so WIkipedia could just take it.
Well, it makes us feel better about ourselves? Pity about the whole FAI thing though...
"The Impact of Media Censorship: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment in China", Chen & Yang 2018:
Something sort-of like that already exists.
Another possible strategy is to just "lose" a small percentage (or a large percentage) of such forms submitted, on the grounds that the additional effort of remembering that you were supposed to get a rebate and calling them on it would push more people under the effort threshold.
This has happened to me, I think. Filled out a rebate for a printer, mailed it in, and... nothing. I understand companies outsource rebate processing, and so it wouldn't surprise me if that meant perverse/anti-consumer incentives much like one sees with professional arbitrators.
I read an article on Cracked about suicide. It seems that even the smallest of inconveniences can make a big difference in numbers of suicides, which is why guns are a terrible ideas to have easily accessible in your house. Humans are lazy. The amount of times I've postponed something, like moving the stuff I constantly have to walk over to reach my room, is way too high. I'd rather walk over a big crate 20 times a day than moving the things
Rebate schemes are not merely betting on consumer laziness; they are also a means of price discrimination. If you really need that $200, you're more likely to fill out the form.
Have you read Nudge? Given that it's the major popular source on the subject, it somehow seems incongruous to have a post with a major section on soft paternalism (they use 'libertarian paternalism') which doesn't even mention it (or at least the name 'Richard Thaler'). Save More Tomorrow is a real-life version of the pension plan you suggest (private, rather than government-run) which has had great success.
Libertarian Paternalism is almost exactly why I started to read the biases literature in the first place - it's the application of knowledge about the way people think/behave to economics.
Paul Graham, The Other Road Ahead
This is somewhat untimely, but I just StumbledUpon this relevant article.
Another example of this might be a deadbolt on your front door; it's sure not going to stop anyone hell bent on robbing you, but it makes it inconvenient enough that any 'opportunist' thieves won't bother.
At any given time, we have many conflicting desires and motivations, that are (generally) closely balanced. Desire to fit in socially and act moral (by not being a thief) vs the desire to maximise your own circumstances (by stealing someones stuff). Desire to maximise circumstances (by filling out the rebate form) vs desire to conserve energy (by being to... (read more)
There's a gradual shading from "soft paternalist" solutions to bans. Making someone take an extra 5 seconds to get their choice would probably not be considered a ban by many people. What about a minute? An hour? A week? What if it takes an hour, and you're a poor person who can't afford to get child care for the hour, or pay the taxi fare to go to the banned store on the outskirts of town? What if buying and having the item increases your chance of being harassed by the police, without the item itself being a crime to buy or have? (This a... (read more)
I'm reminded of Slavoj Zizek's example of "soft" coercion of sophisticated nations vs the "hard" overt coercion of communist states. He compares it to a type of parenting. There's 2 types of ways parents might get children to visit their grandmother. The hard way is "Go visit your grandmother, it's your responsibility, or you'll get smacked." The soft way is "Go visit your grandmother, she loves you so much. You never know when it's too late and she misses you all the time. It's your cho... (read more)
His blog, The Frontal Cortex, is also interesting.
Trivial inconveniences are alive and kicking in digital piracy, where one always has to jump through hoops such as using obscure services, softwares, settings or procedures.
I suspect it is to fend off the least motivated users: numerous enough to bring attention, and most likely to expose the den in the wrong place.
Has there been any work done to quantify the effect as part of an overall cost calculation?
For example, let's say that certain object X is sold as a subscription (buy us for 1 week, pay A, buy it for 1 month, pay B, and buy it for a year and pay C where A per day>B per day>C per day). There is obviously a certain amount of inconvenience each time I have to go through the order page.
If having access to X is necessary 2 days per month, it's easy to calculate the best option (probably A) per year:
A/2 days * 12 months in a year
B/2 days * 12 mon... (read more)
Examples with credit vs cash may not be quite relevant to "trivial inconveniences". It seems to me, that the key here is, when one uses cash, they are physically giving away something material. With credit card, you just type in pin code, or sign a receipt, or whatever, but that does not register in System 1 as giving away something. So, no cash -- no System 1 intervention, thus less regret on bigger numbers.
"I don't know of any unifying psychological theory that explains our problem with trivial inconveniences."
I suspect it is simply the combination of uncertain outcome and an opportunity cost. If I'm surfing the web and meet a wall, why would I go through even a trivial effort, when I can just hit back and click the next link? Perhaps most don't expect higher utility from reading a blocked page than another one.
Please don't comment.
It's worse than that; I've thought of probably upward of a dozen article ideas that I felt momentary inspiration to write, and promptly decided not to because of the Omega-cursed post editor that takes so many more clicks to get to than a comment box and doesn't accept the same markup.
The solution is to sidestep the technical inconveniences and write the text using whatever tools you are most comfortable with, and then, after the text is written, deal with the inconveniences. This way, the inconveniences are scheduled so that they don't stand between you and the important part of the task. (I write my posts in LaTeX, for example.)
I feel like I've seen this (or something related) talked about elsewhere using the phrase "activation energy".
Also, without going into specific psychological forces, defaults matter a lot.
Curious if the book is worth it after this http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03/01/publisher-pulls-jonah-lehrer-s-how-we-decide-from-stores.html
Your comments, ever calling for downvoting, are like dust specks is everyone's eye, trivial inconveniences adding up towards the threshold, where a mob of rationalists precommited berserk will cash it out as a one-person torture.
Ego-depletion? (Maybe not exactly right, but it seems to be in the ballpark at least...)
I don't think rebates are strictly added to bet on laziness. It's not always easy to change the price, so it offers some flexibility for later updates. Then there's quarterly earnings and other such stuff to muddy up the situation. Hi Eliezer. Hi everyone.
I see no reason for this comment other than as some sort of test to see if you get voted down no matter what you say, if that's the case then it's not a very good test. If you absolutely have to do that sort of thing, at least try a new account or something.