Conflict vs Mistake

Why is The Elephant in The Brain conflict theory? IME the elephant is terribly mistaken about lots of things. I mean, you could frame it as a conflict between our selves and our genes, but that doesn't seem like a very helpful way of doing it, vs. correcting the elephant's mistakes.

The Elephant in the Brain explains how many things look like mistakes, but actually correspond to self-serving strategies in service of hidden motives, in various domains. This is a conflict-theoretic way of looking at things; in particular it implies that you get better predictions in these domains by thinking about people's incentives, than by thinking about their cognition or access to information.

I'm not actually sure what to call the practice of attributing rational agency to things for the sake of modeling convenience. I've called it "rational choice theory" in my edit. Zach Davis classifies it as a generalized anti-zombie principle, or "algorithmic intent". But this isn't quite right either.

Clearly it's a form of the "intentional stance", but I think mistake theory also uses an intentional stance; just one where agents are allowed to make mistakes. I can certainly see an argument for viewing mistake-theory as taking less of an intentional stance, ie, viewing everything more based on cause-and-effect rather than agency. But I don't think we want "intentional stance" to imply a theory of mind where no one ever makes mistakes.

But the anti-mistake theory is clearly of use in many domains. Evolution is going to produce near-optimal solutions for a lot of problems. The economy is going to produce near-optimal solutions for a lot of problems. Many psychological phenomena are going to be well-predicted by assuming humans are solving specific problems near-optimally. Many biological phenomena are probably predictable in this way as well. Plus, assuming rationality like this can really simplify and clarify the modeling in many cases -- particularly if you're happy with a toy model.

So I think we want a name for it. And "rational choice theory" is not very good, because it sounds like it might be describing the theory of rational agents (ie, decision theory), rather than the practice of modeling a lot of things as rational agents.

Anyway, clearly rational choice theory (or whatever we call it) is absolutely against mistake theory, on the face of it. But the thing is, many mistake theorists also use it. In the SSC post about conflict vs mistake, mistake theorists are supposedly the people interested in mechanism design, economics, and nuanced arguments about the consequences of actions. I see this as a big contradiction in the conflict theory vs mistake theory dichotomy as described there.

Hanlon's Razor says: Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity. This is a clear bias toward mistake theory.

On the other hand, economics, evolutionary psychology, and some other fields are based on rational choice theory, IE, an assumption that behavior can be explained by rational decision-making. (Economic rationality assumes that individuals choose rationally to maximize economic value, based on the incentives of the current situation. Evolutionary psychology instead assumes that human and animal behaviors will be optimal solutions to the problems they faced in evolutionary history. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita assumes that politicians act rationally so as to maximize their tenure in positions of power. The ACT-R theory of cognition assumes that individual cognitive mechanisms are designed to optimally perform their individual cognitive tasks, such as retrieving memories which are useful in expectation, even if the whole brain is not perfectly rational.) This assumption of rationality lends itself more naturally to conflict theories.

A conflict theorist thinks problems are primarily due to the conflicting interests of different players. If someone is suffering, someone else must be making money off of it. Karl Marx was a conflict theorist; he blamed the ills of society on class conflict.

A mistake theorist thinks problems are primarily due to mistakes. If only we knew how to run society better, there would be less problems. Jeremy Bentham was more of a mistake theorist: he thought producing a formula by which we could calculate the quality of social interventions would help improve society.

Humans are not automatically strategic is a mistake theory of human (ir)rationality. Things are hard. If people are doing something dumb, it's probably because they don't know better.

The Elephant in the Brain is more like a conflict theory of human (ir)rationality. Apparent irrationality is attributed mainly to humans not actually wanting what they think they want.

Game-Theoretic Connections

In game theory, assuming that people can make mistakes (a so-called trembling hand) can complicate cooperative strategies.

For example, in iterated prisoner's dilemma, tit for tat is a cooperative equilibrium (that is to say, it is pareto-optimal, and it is a Nash equilibrium). The tit-for-tat strategy is: cooperate on the first round; then, copy the other person's move from the previous round. This enforces cooperation, because if I defect, I expect my partner to defect on the next round (which is bad for me). This is effectively eye-for-an-eye morality.

However, if people make mistakes (the trembling-hand assumption), then tit-for-tat only results in cooperation for an initial period before anyone makes a mistake. If both mistakes are equally probable, then in the long run we'll average only 50% cooperation. We can see this as an interminable family feud where both sides see the other as having done more wrong. "An eye for an eye makes everyone blind."

We need to recognize that people make mistakes sometimes -- we can't punish everything eye-for-an-eye.

Therefore, some form of forgiving tit-for-tat does better. For example, copy cooperation 100% of the time, but copy defection 90% of the time. This can still work to enforce rational cooperation (depending on the exact payouts and time-discounting of the players), but without everlasting feuds. See also Contrite Strategies and the Need for Standards.

In this framing, a conflict theorist thinks people are actually defecting on purpose. They know what they're doing, and therefore, would respond to incentives. Punishing them is prosocial and helps to encourage more cooperation overall.

A mistake theorist thinks people are defecting accidentally, and therefore, would not respond to incentives. Punishing them is pointless and counterproductive; it could even result in a continuing feud, making things much worse for everyone.

Scott Alexander attributed the conflict vs mistake framework to a post on reddit by user no_bear_so_low.

Applied to Our House, My Rules by Multicore at 2y

Conflict vs Mistake is a framework for analyzing disagreements about policy.

Mistake theorists think problems in society are caused by people being bad at achieving common goals. Conflict theorists think problems in society are caused by adversaries with incompatible goals.