Bryan Caplan wrote and quoted the idea of a "proper reaction," the "specific package of moods" that a "reasonable person" holding an intellectual position would have. If this mood is missing, it is grounds for suspicion, and we can "learn a lot" from it. It's a "valuable clue." The appropriate mood suggests credibility and truth. He claims that the missing mood heuristic is "fallible... but we all use it and we’re wise to do so."

He then gave examples of three moods missing from his political opponents, and two missing moods among his fellow pacifists and libertarians.

In the spirit of Paul Graham's disagreement hierarchy, let's identify the central point in Caplan's argument, and see if we can refute it.

Caplan's examples revolve around political and economic policy questions, so let's stay in that territory.

Let's start with an analogy that a proponent of war, immigration restriction, or regulation might hold. What if we compared these policies to chemotherapy? Although such treatments come with serious side effects, proponents believe that the benefits outweigh them.

We might accuse a flippant oncologist of a "missing mood," but this is as much because of the gravity of cancer as the side effects of chemotherapy. And there is a space of feistiness and humor that might be contextually appropriate.

My sense is that Caplan thinks that the chemotherapy analogy doesn't capture his central point, and I think I know why. With chemotherapy, the biomedical side effects and therapeutic benefits exclusively affect the patient.

By contrast, with war, regulation, and immigration restrictions, and with political policies in general, the costs and benefits of such policies are usually suffered or enjoyed by different groups of people. Furthermore, those people may have little or no say in whether or not those policies are enacted. Often, it is the people with the least political power who are made to suffer. These policies might be net good, but still unfair.

Therefore, I think that Caplan's "missing mood" probably most relevant when a policy proponent focuses entirely on the net benefit of the policy, and does not express any sense of empathy for those who the policy treats unfairly.

A reason to be worried about policy activists with a "missing mood" is that the beneficiaries of an unfair policy have selfish reason to ignore the costs of even net-negative policies. If such costs are being intellectually and emotionally ignored, then we should be suspicious that we're being presented with some misleading information about the utilitarian calculus. If the activist is hoping we'll see the benefits of their policy to ourselves and won't look too hard for any possible costs to others, or for risks that it won't work out, then we might also  be worried that we're being duped as well. Maybe even the benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be.

A wisdom-promoting policy activist should put us in a sober mood to consider the total package of costs and benefits, and on whose heads they will fall. They should trust that such sober considerations will convince us. They don't need to hide anything.

In summary, a "missing mood" is a widespread tendency of policy activists to ignore collateral damage and risk, both intellectually and emotionally.

Now, Caplan safely describes this not as an infallible rule, but as a "fallible heuristic" that we are "wise" to use. To refute (this version of) Caplan's central point, we would have to refute the idea that this is a wise heuristic.

An activist might ignore collateral damage because they've precommitted to supporting a particular set of values and a particular set of people. When they have a goal aligned with those values and the interests of those people, the first logical step is to frame the issue in those terms. This necessarily entails downplaying or ignoring values that are relevant in somebody else's value/social scheme, but not in their own. Likewise, it means being supicious of epistemic claims by their opponents, which may seem like propaganda rather than the truth.

Detecting a "missing mood" most clearly seems to mean that you have detected your political opposition: a group of people with a different set of values, interests, and trust networks than your own.

While there might be a single epistemic and even moral truth to be found in the matter, this will not be easy to prove. The first step in such a process might be understanding the perspective of your opposition. Get out of your own soldier mindset, and into scout mindset. How does your opponent think about their values, and why does it make instrumental sense, given their goals, for them to ignore the collateral damage that seems so grave to you?

The "missing mood" heuristic seems to interfere with that process. Caplan's own writing uses his own political opposition as the primary examples people with "missing moods," and even the "missing moods" examples on his own side (pacifists and libertarians) are missing from other people, not from him. He seems to be using this concept to explain and spread his distaste for his political opposition, as a justification not to engage with their thinking on a deeper level than he already has.

The "presence" of a "missing mood" might not only reflect that the other person is operating under a different set of values and interests, but serve a function of signaling those values and interests. Far from undermining credibility, the missing mood is intended to enhance credibility with the target audience.

In the case of Ted Cruz's jingoistic 2016 comment in support of a war against ISIL, "“I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out," he is intending to enhance his credibility as a hawk both with his political base and with ISIL. Convincing your enemy that you can't be dissuaded by hostage-taking and collateral damage is one way of motivating your enemy not to bother taking hostages. Convincing them of your belligerence is one way of making them back down.

These objections should be apparent to a savvy economist like Caplan. As such, I can interpret this concept of his in one of three ways, in increasing levels of conflict theory:

  1. A way of illustrating what it would feel like to hold Caplan's own values.
  2. A piece of evidence that Caplan either lacks the capacity or has made the active commitment not to imagine any other set of values than his own.
  3. An activist tool that Caplan is using to establish or solidify his own values in his readership by making his political opponents appear thoughtless or lacking in empathy.

Identifying a "missing mood" is a great heuristic for identifying a difference in values between oneself and another person. It's also a good way to put down your political opponents and solidify the support of your own side.

It's not a great rule of thumb for deciding who is epistemically correct or morally superior, as Caplan seems to want to do. 


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I think you're right that the initial blog post is repeatedly making a big mistake: running into a values difference and using the mood argument as evidence against the position.

I think to turn this into a useful heuristic, the patch is to reverse the order of operations. If you go from Noticing Missing Mood -> Be Suspicious you can easily used this to tar your political opposition. But if you go from Intuition of Suspicion -> Look for Missing Mood, it can be a highly productive heuristic for determining what seems to be wrong with someone’s argument, whether or not that actually makes it wrong. You can immediately find cruxier issues between you and your political opponent (like the values differences above). This post seems to do that well.

Doing this on your own beliefs is arguably the most productive! "Huh, shouldn't I also feel sympathy towards the people my proposed policy hurts?"

Identifying a "missing mood" is a great heuristic for identifying a difference in values between oneself and another person. It's also a good way to put down your political opponents and solidify the support of your own side.

It's not a great rule of thumb for deciding who is epistemically correct or morally superior, as Caplan seems to want to do. 

I don't think there are really any strong rules of thumb for deciding if someone is correct. But among competing heuristics (e.g. "are they betting?", "is their theory simple?", "does their theory match common sense?") the "missing mood heuristic" is pretty good.

I actually agree that the examples that Bryan Caplan uses are not very good. But consider another example: people who believe that civilization is about to collapse in 10-20 years. Lots of these people take their beliefs seriously, and genuinely try to prepare for living in that world. But there's another group of people who claim this, repeatedly, and yet,

  • Continue to save for retirement
  • Don't really seem to care about opportunities to borrow money at low interest rates now
  • Don't prepare materially by buying stocks of food or portable electricity generators

For this group of people, it sure seems suspicious that they're claiming civilizational collapse is right around the corner. Of course, if you asked them about this, they would probably generate a bunch of excuses, none of which would likely be their true rejection of the proposed actions above. The missing mood heuristic clarifies this behavior: their true rejection is plausibly just they don't really believe what they're saying in their bones. That or they're just uncurious. But in either case, it's evidence that strikes against their belief.

What's a negative example of this heuristic? I think MIRI researchers qualify, as my impression is that some of them also believe the world will probably end in 10-20 years, though by a different mechanism entirely. And by contrast to the people above, I think they genuinely are taking actions that make sense conditioned on that assumption.

ETA: Note that you might just not be talking to someone who's in the "inner core" of believers, and the reason why they miss a mood is because they just haven't thought about it much. Ideally, we should apply the heuristics to people who over and over again profess a belief without seeming to accept its implications.

The example of apocalyptic doomsayers with healthy retirement savings strikes me as an example of people who are betting against their professed beliefs. As such, we don't need the missing mood heuristic to explain why we do not find them credible.

I think you might have missed my point. The missing mood heuristic is designed to pinpoint when people profess beliefs but don't really seem to actually believe it. It's saying "these people are missing the mood of someone who actually believes X."

The people who I'm referring to (and I admit I'm not being specific) probably don't even realize the contradiction between their behavior and their belief, because they're not thinking through the implications of their belief. In other words, the belief hasn't propagated through their minds and caused them to realize "Hey I really shouldn't be saving for retirement." 

It's not that they're actively betting against their belief. It's just that they miss a mood that they'd be having if they really believed what they claim to believe. I think that's different, and points to more-or-less the exact thing that Bryan Caplan was referring to.

I interpreted Caplan’s missing mood heuristic differently. My read is that he thinks a person with a missing mood really holds their belief, but that we shouldn’t find them a credible interpreter of issues touching on that belief, because of their missing mood. Caplan seems to think it’s suggestive of epistemic blind spots, or just intellectual laziness. For example, I think Caplan thinks an anti-immigration activist really is against immigration, and takes real action against it, but that we nevertheless should not find ourselves interested in or persuaded by the force of their belief if they don’t articulate a concern for the economic and human costs of this policy.

By contrast, you seem to interpret the missing mood heuristic as pointing to someone who doesn’t really hold the belief they profess to hold. We might say that their heart isn’t in it. We can imagine the attitude of a person forced to adopt a religion or political belief to avoid punishment, or somebody who’s faking enjoyment at a social obligation they’d rather have skipped. In these cases, I agree with you that the missing mood heuristic is helpful in identifying their lack of real conviction, but I didn’t interpret that as Caplan’s central point and was not trying to address it in my response.

I think your read of what's going on is a good step to resolving this disagreement. My guess is that I see myself as steelmanning Caplan. I also weakly suspect Caplan would agree with my steelman.

Let's look at his third example he gives in this post because I think it's his strongest. My summary + steelman of it is the following:

There is an obvious reason why we'd expect labor market regulations to have disemployment effects. Namely, if employers are forced to follow the regulation, they have an incentive not to hire people. And yet, strangely, some claim that these disemployment effects are empirically very small.

Typically, those who favor labor market regulation, and cite these empirical findings, don't seem to really grok how weird the empirical results are. They don't, for example, assert that we should be very cautious and skeptical of the face-value results. Instead, when people argue for labor market regulations, they mostly treat the empirical results to be an afterthought, rather than a bizarre coincidence that favors their pre-determined policy prescription.

We can explain what's going on here by appealing to one of two broad hypotheses: (1) perhaps there really are very small disemployment effects from regulation, and people who argue for labor market regulations are right to lack a mood skeptical of the empirical findings, or (2) there are actually substantial disemployment effects, and the cited empirical findings are a result of cherry-picking or bad research methodologies. The reason why people lack a mood skeptical of those results is because they aren't very interested in getting to the bottom of the matter. They'd rather just advocate for their policy first, and find results to back it up later.

The likelihood of explanation (1) is weakened by the inherent implausibility in the empirical claim. It's actually pretty obvious that we'd see disemployment effects, and smart people should recognize its obviousness, so the fact that people don't seem interested in it is evidence that explanation (2) is correct.

Note that my summary here is similar to my example above about people who believe in collapse. People who believe in collapse but aren't interested in preparing for it, seem more interested in the view for other reasons than its correctness. They're more interested in professing belief in it, almost like an afterthought, perhaps as a vehicle for an entirely different psychological agenda.

I think that Caplan’s begging the question on that one. The issue at stake in that debate is partly the economic ideas. His acceptance of those ideas established his prior on the effects of labor market regulation, which in turn is what makes it, in his view, a “missing mood” to be unsurprised if those effects were not something to be taken seriously.

So a lack of that mood only indicates a disagreement about those economic ideas, and the values that go with them, which is the real issue at stake. Missing the mood is just a sign of the epistemic and moral disagreement, rather than a sign of who holds the correct position, or the strength of the convictions of each side in the debate.

The obviousness claim, the ad hominem assertion that “smart people” should agree with him by default, is just cheap, poor argumentation. And I think that the “missing mood” heuristic is a rhetorical trick about on the same level. Note that I am not accusing you of any of this, because I recognize that you’re steelmanning Caplan here. But I guess I do not see this as a successful steelman, but rather an illustration that even an attempt to steelman this heuristic results in an unconvincing outcome. I think the attempt is valuable though.