The Stable State is Broken

by Bakkot 3 min read12th Mar 201243 comments


or: Why Everything Is Terrible, An Overview.1


It sounds like a theory which explains too much. But it's not a theory, hardly even an explanation, more a pattern that manifests itself once you start trying to seriously answer rhetorical questions about the state of the world. From many perspectives, it's obvious to the point of being mundane, practically tautological, but sometimes such obvious facts are worth pointing out regardless.

The idea is this: The subset of participants which rises to prominence in any area does so because its members have traits helpful to becoming prominent, not necessarily because they have traits which are desirable. Thus, without ongoing and concerted effort, a great many arenas end up dominated by players employing strategies which are bad for everyone.


This comes up again and again:

  • Why does science (or rather, the publisher-based model thereof) so frequently produce results which are laughably wrong? Because those journals which don't publish retractions or reproductions will more frequently be the first to publish revolutionary results, and so become more widely read and widely cited. Journals don't attract authors by being as accurate as possible; they win by looking important.
  • Why do cigarette companies target kids and teens whenever they think they can get away with it, and breed tobacco for maximized nicotine? Because those companies which do will turn more profit and thus last longer and grow faster than those that don't, and so have more resources to devote to proliferating. Companies don't expand by playing fair; they win by making and keeping customers.
  • Why is the Make-A-Wish Foundation sitting on more donations than it knows what to do with when the Against Malaria Foundation could have used that money to save literally tens or hundreds of thousands of lives per year? Because knowing how to elicit donations is a skill almost completely unrelated to knowing how to spend donations, and because American children with cancer make for better advertising than African children with malaria. Charities don't get donations by making the best possible use of their money; they win by advertising effectively towards potential donors. (cf. Efficient Charity)
  • Why do governments inevitably end up run by career lawyers and politicians instead of scientists and economists2? Because polarizing rhetoric and political connections look better than a nuanced, accurate understanding of the issues. There is only finite time for training and practice, and eventually a choice must be made between training in looking good and training in being good. People don't get elected or appointed by being good Bayesians; they win by being popular.
  • Why do the big media channels seem to be more concerned with celebrities than science, and spend more time talking about individual murders than they do entire genocides? Because those channels talking about Laci Peterson seem more personal and are thus more watched than those talking about some religious sect in China. Television programming isn't determined by what's important; what wins is what's watched.
  • Why is the sex ratio in animals almost always nearly 1:1, when a population with one male for every five females could grow faster and adapt to problems more readily? Because in such a population, or in any population with a sufficiently large gender imbalance, a gene causing a woman to only have male children will be vastly overrepresented in the grandchild generation relative to the rest of the population, and so shift the balance closer to 50/50. Genes don't proliferate by being good for the species; they win by being good for themselves. (cf. Evolutionarily stable strategy, evolutionary game theory.)
  • Why do most big businesses make use of sweatshop conditions and shady tax dodges? Because the businesses which do so will outperform the businesses which don't. Corporations don't grow by being nice; they win by being profitable.
  • Why do so many apparently intelligent people spend hours per day idly browsing the likes of Reddit, Hacker News, or TVTropes (or indeed LW), when a similar dedication to active self-improvement could have made them a master of a field inside of a decade? (Using for back-of-the-envelope's sake the supposition that 10,000 hours of practice are required for mastery of some specific art, we find that three hours per day for ten years is approximately 1.1 masteries.) Because which activities become habitual is determined by their immediate dopamine release, and for intelligent people the act of (say) reading about strategies for becoming an effective entrepreneur makes for more instant dopamine than does the painful daily grind involved in actually becoming an entrepreneur. Activities don't become part of daily life by being useful; they win by tricking your brain into making them feel good.

It's extremely important to remember that none of this requires active malice, not even foresight or awareness of the strategy utilized. If someone or something happens upon a strategy like those described above, it will outperform its peers and become more widespread. This requires no conspiracy, no evil forces at work in the world, not even any individual shifting in their personal stance; these are just the stable strategies  towards which the set of surviving players eventually converges. 
The next question: What can we do about it?

1I have distinct recollections of having read an article much like the one I've written here at some point in the past. However, I can't find said article, so at the least we can let this article serve as a refresher or another viewpoint on the matter. (ETA: evgenit and gwern both point out that the article I'm thinking of is Scott Aaronson's Malthusianisms. [Aaronson refers to these states as Nash equilibria, which is not strictly correct; there's no underlying assumption about the rationality of the players here. You don't need intelligent participants for selection to operate. This is more a quibble over terminology than anything.])
2Until recently, China stood as a notable exception; now it appears that the next generations of leaders will have built their entire careers on shilling the party line.
3Tangentially related reading material: Bruce Schneier's new book.
4No, neither footnote 3 nor this footnote actually have corresponding backreferences.
5I wasn't entire sure which section of the site this would be best suited for. Hopefully this is appropriate. ETA: Also, as this is my first submission outside of comment threads, any feedback is highly appreciated.