Epistemic Status: Based on my own experience and intuitions only.

Some reasoning heuristics, that the brain uses, seem to rely on that there is limited information available. And newspapers, TV, and search engines break them hard.

Assume, that you want to evaluate if something is really good. A heuristic that your brain seems to use is to look at all the available data and search for bad things. If you reach some threshold of cumulative badness, then you will conclude that the thing can't be really good. The problem is that the threshold does not properly take into account, from how much data you select your observations from. So if you have enough data, you will always hit the threshold, so long as a bad thing occurs with a probability greater than zero.

Assume that the probability of being born a psychopath is 2%, that you live in a hunter-gatherer tribe of 12, and that you see 5 generations over your lifetime. Then you see around 60 people in your life within your tribe. You will have a 30% chance of not ever seeing any psychopath. And the psychopaths that you might see, might not be dumb enough to get caught, or might not do anything bad in the first place. So it is really unlikely that you will see any really bad behavior, caused by people being psychopaths.

Now assume you are thinking about the (horribly underspecified) question of if humans are innately good. It seems that in this situation, you would be more likely to think so because it is unlikely that you will observe a lot of bad behavior. And I would expect that the badness threshold is calibrated based on situations like this.

Compare this to the situation today. Even if we only consider video material of the last decades that is publically accessible, we have an unending fountain of examples of people who did terrible things. Just type psychopath, serial killer confession, murderer, or related terms into youtube.

Using the heuristic described in the beginning, your brain might very quickly conclude that humanity is evil if you are not careful.

Let's ask a better question. What is the percentage of human beings that do terrible things to no good end? Asking this question, it becomes much easier to see, that we need to know how many people are there in total, and how many of these people did terrible actions how often.

The problem is not only that our brain uses this heuristic. It is also that we normally ask questions in such an ambiguous way, that this heuristic seems to be applicable in the first place.

Another issue is that media, if it is curated, is prone to talk about the terrible and ignore the good. This creates a bias. Reporting on all the murderers, but not on all the people that did not do anything terrible. And there are a whole lot more of those.

A similar problem exists with search engines. If you search for information on terrible things, then you will find it. And you might not think of searching for the good things. But even if you did, it is not like you can look at all of the available information (which of course is also biased towards focusing on extreme events, and perhaps more towards the negative than the positive). You can't look at all the positive things and all the negative things and then count them and calculate some weighted ratio. From your perspective, there is just an unending amount of information pointing in either direction (at least if try to go about it in a naive way).


4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:25 AM
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It's interesting to compare 'Generalizing from Fictional Evidence' to this phenomenon. Sure all this stuff is going on, but is it happening in one place? (Of course, with enough people, the constraint of 'one person's life' doesn't necessarily work well either - for instance, there are people who were at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki when they were bombed. This page says 70.)

Things that happen far away can also be important though.

I think I don't quite understand what you are saying unless you mean that not all of the observations of bad behavior come from some "region in space".

Then I would say that yes, it does not happen in one place. When you look on youtube for videos of murder confessions you get the videos from countries where this content is publically accessible and mandated to be produced. Though, these are not the conditions under which all people live. I don't know the laws for every country, but I would guess that some don't do it. Certainly, hunter-gatherer tribes don't.

I was rephrasing what you said about not encountering bad stuff in your life (to this extent) and emphasizing that the news can talk about this stuff, videos can show this stuff - but does your own life involve all this stuff, 'that makes you think humanity is evil?'.

I then asked whether this method works ('focus on your own life') when applied to someone else's life. I.e. stuff like talking with someone about their life (or reading an autobiography), and suggested that this might be less distorted - but there's a lot of people, and so there will be people whose lives are extraordinary (not just in good ways), and so something like someone telling their life story on news/interview or whatever could still be very different from your own - and in the way described in this post.

And also, maybe the type of people with autobiographies are usually famous and lived unusual lives, so that doesn't necessarily work either.

Thanks for the clarification, now I get it. I think that is a good point. I do not know anyone that I know who did terrible things. And I mean from all the people who I have ever met. Which is probably in the hundreds. But of course, if they had done something terrible they would not necessarily have said. But it feels like none of them did. I just know one person that got into prison. And with know, I mean that I said 2 words to him in all my life, and a friend who knew him better told me after I did not see him for many years. I would expect that most people's lives are like that. For a start, at least no one of all of these people has told me that they themselves or other people had different experiences. And that would be thousands of people at least. Though again they might just not have mentioned it. I never talked with anyone about this explicitly until now.