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The Allais Paradox

My experience of watching game shows such as 'Deal or No Deal' suggests that people do not ascribe a low positive utility to winning nothing or close to nothing - they actively fear it, as if it would make their life worse than before they were selected to appear on the show. It seems this fear is in some sense inversely proportional to the 'socially expected' probability of the bad event - so if the player is aware that very few players win less than £1 on the show, they start getting very uncomfortable if there is a high chance of this happening to them, because winning less than £1 is somehow embarrassing, and winning 1p is somehow significantly worse than winning say 50p. In contrast, on game shows where there's a 'double or nothing' option at the end, it is socially accepted that there's a high chance of winning nothing, so players seem to be much more sanguine about the gamble. I think the psychology of 'face' has a lot to answer for when it comes to such decisions.

The American System and Misleading Labels

On SCOTUS: My impression as a Brit is that this body is rather like the House of Lords - it's understood to act in a political way rather than just interpreting legal statutes and precedents, and indeed most of its members still very much wear their political colours, but they are appointed effectively for life by the executive, making them a long-run footprint of political control of the executive over the years (in the UK, the House of Lords is seen by some as a moderating influence because its composition doesn't change violently when there's an electoral aberration). The big differences though seem to be the much smaller number of SCOTUS members as opposed to Lords makes it a lot more variable as to how many members a given administration gets to appoint, and that SCOTUS is probably more powerful (several of their decisions are tantamount to constitutional amendments, a power SCOTUS has acquired due to the terseness of the US constitution and the aversion of the US system to amending it formally.)

On the power of the voter: I'm sure there are many out there who entertain fantasies of people going all "GRRR! ELECTORATE SMASH!" and booting out the demopublicratans. Unfortunately, if a Bayesian looked at world history he'd assign a high probability of victory in such a situation to a group based on some combination of xenophobia, religious fervour and class envy. The red mist can really bring out the worst in people when it comes to knee-jerk thinking.

On Colbert's candidacy: The Democratic Party is not an official body charged with upholding the general welfare of the American voter. It's up to the Democrats how they choose candidates. I think it's a dangerous path to start thinking of political parties as public institutions in their own right, and their primaries as being somehow the same kind of activity as a presidential election itself.

The Two-Party Swindle

The whole tribal thing is something of an exaggeration when it comes to politics. You do get people who are totally dedicated to one party and would continue to support it even as its policies totally transformed, but I think more people are interested in particular issues. For instance, can you imagine an African-American fanatically opposing the Democrats in the 2006 midterms on the basis that they want to treat him as an inferior, because he decided his party alignment while living in 1950s Alabama and hasn't thought about it since? A few people may be like this, but I doubt it's a mainstream position.

What does happen though is that people become partisans for or against particular policies or approaches, such as small government or states' rights; they may support these policies conditionally, having examined the available evidence to decide what is best, but more likely their support for the policy is intellectually divorced from any benefits they might actually derive from the policy being put into action.

This is not to say that people will support the party whose policies most closely align to these wishes, of course, because people are often hopelessly incapable of analysing what politicians actually achieve when in power. The way policy support turns into party affiliation is more through marketing, where a party gives the impression that it's 'good' for supporters of a given policy or approach in the same way an advert for men's sunglasses implies that wearing the shades will make you attractive to women. Marketing works more on the basis of Pavlovian conditioning than tribal loyalty. (A particularly bizarre example of this was the association of France with all things evil by some Iraq war supporters in the US, to the point where describing John Kerry as 'French-looking', alluding to his partial French ancestry, was meant trigger an instinctive antipathy. I wonder how one is supposed to react to the knowledge that one of their favourite allies in foreign policy, Tony Blair, is also a fluent French speaker and has given at least one speech in the language to France's National Assembly?)

On Expressing Your Concerns

Assuming spontaneous original thought is too difficult (and I doubt anything in this comment is original), how about this as a ritualised way of avoiding group-think:

A company has regular meetings to discuss its tactics. However, before the meeting, the boss tells one of the participants to be a rebel. (The others don't know who is the designated rebel at a given meeting, but it is understood that everyone will be told to play rebel sooner or later, for fairness if nothing else.) The rebel's job is to come up with persuasive arguments against the consensus position, even if it's a consensus the boss is believed to support (assuming the matter is still up for discussion). The rebel doesn't have to always take a minority position, so as not to force him into absurdities, but he has a bias in favour of rebellious behaviour because it will please the boss.

Why the secrecy? Because the uncertainty about who is the rebel creates a window for other participants to genuinely express anti-consensus opinions, something they'd otherwise be afraid to do for fear of ostracism. This is the real purpose of the rebel from the perspective of the boss.

Now the danger here is that the designated rebel will come to the meeting wearing black, so to speak, and so won't actually count for much in the social perspective of the other participants. However, the rebel has an incentive not to make it so obvious. In fact, even the would-be conformists benefit from disguising the rebel, if they think the consensus is genuinely the right position, because as soon as the rebel is unmasked, the aura of the boss is also clear to see on him, so others would be socially obliged to show him more respect. (But this could make them inclined to agree with him, which makes his job as rebel intellectually taxing, coupled with the extra pressure of increased attention, so he won't enjoy this reverence too much.) Also, the others may feel sympathy for the rebel, because it's not a role he has chosen, and the chances are that they will be called on to do the same. This sympathy also extends to possible rebels. So this will hopefully make dissent much more socially acceptable, and reduce the urge to 'destroy the traitor' by ignoring or ridiculing him.

Why have only one rebel? Because if everyone were rewarded for rebellion, it would create constant disagreement for the sake of it. (To make it clear, the boss does not automatically reward all rebellions in the meeting, only those of the designated rebel.) The designated rebel is just there to break the spell of unanimity. He is made to sacrifice much of his own freedom of action, but in a decent-sized group this is hopefully compensated for by the increased independence of the others.

Does this kind of manufactured dissent actually work in reducing bias overall? Or would the 'we hate the lone rebel' bias prove too strong to overcome, even when it's theoretically trumped by the approval of the boss?

Mere Messiahs

I just discovered this blog today; looks thought-provoking.


In theory, Christians can go one up on non-believers in the self-sacrificing stakes, which is to act in such a way as to condemn themselves to Hell, a fate which I would consider worse than non-existence. If they do it for the greater benefit of mankind this might be seen as a supreme act of virtue.

We then seem run into the question "Would a good God allow someone to go to Hell as a result of a supreme act of virtue?"

But that question is missing the point, unless we are trying imagine its manifestation and effect inside the mind of the would-be martyr. All that matters is that the would-be martyr thinks he is condemning himself to Hell, just as he thinks there will be beneficial consequences to others of his damnation. These beliefs could be right or wrong, but it would be unfair to judge virtue on the basis of knowledge. (We might judge it on the basis of rationality, but there might well be circumstances under which it is rational to believe in damnation resulting from a virtuous act.)

Satan as martyr is a well-explored theme, though you could say (depending on the story/interpretation) that Satan expects to benefit personally from his defiance of God, even if he knows he's going to be defeated (in the form of getting to rule Hell, retaining his free will and/or simply the warm fuzzy feeling of having done good), and has principally selfish motives, so diminishing the virtue. A more clear-cut fictional example of 'expected damnation arising from a virtuous act' is given in the film 'South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut', but I'm sure it's been done plenty of times before that.

Does anyone know of a real-life analogue of Kenny McCormick in this context? (Not in terms of whether they actually went to Hell, but in terms of what they thought the consequences of their actions would be, and the resulting choices they made.)