Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What, me; paranoid?

Neuroeconomics at GMU is discussing an intriguing study concerning predispositions to pessimism:

Apparently, we’re all wired to be downers in a world characterized by pervasive ambiguity. Somewhere in the course of human evolution, though, people’s views toward their pessimistic peers have changed – whereas downers of the distant past likely served to possess and distribute valuable information, they’re a drag in 21st-century America. What used to be an advantageous survival strategy is now, at least in well-off societies, a social nuisance and an object of mockery. Is this transformation not a testament to how well off we have become?

In fact, Overcoming Bias was just commenting on a similar issue: our natural paranoia.

If the project of ‘overcoming bias’ is rational correction of the biases of spontaneous human cognition, it may hit a limit when it comes to ‘theory of mind’ inferences such as evaluating the dispositions, motivations and intentions of other humans. For instance, trying to answer the question – how paranoid should I be?

We cannot know for sure whether other people intend to harm us, given that such intentions are concealed. If we are too-paranoid we will miss-out on potentially valuable alliances and waste resources on pointless precautions; yet if we are not-paranoid-enough then we will be harmed or even killed (especially in the tribal ancestral human environment, when the brain evolved).

Such social evaluations are the very basis of human intelligence, according to the Machiavellian Intelligence theory that humans evolved big brains to deal with the vast complexities of human social living.

My take is that, if we evolved to have a certain degree of paranoia towards others, and this paranoia can nowadays be transferred towards nuclear proliferation, global warming, or that damned unsynchronized traffic light in the morning commute, then it is quite normal for us to be a little paranoid--there simply is no alternative. However, I'm not quite so sure that either today's downers are objects of mockery, or that it is sheer wealth from economic growth that has taken out most of the value of their raining in our parade.

There is a number of high profile 'downers' which aren't really under mockery. Thomas Schelling, Paul Kennedy, Dennis Meadows, Jared Diamond, Daniel Dennett, Al Gore, ok; perhaps Mr. Gore is under mockery. And perhaps Dennett isn't a downer after all (despite his recent TED talk).

But the real issue is the argument that sheer wealth has made downers less relevant. To me, it just doesn't feel quite right. I agree that they are less relevant, yet, I don't place the cause in the economics of wealth, but in the economics of information.

In April 18, 1775, Paul Revere crossed a whole lotta earth on horseback to pass on a piece of info: "the British are coming". That piece of info was of extreme importance and changed history to the extent that it did. Whenever a downer carried around a new piece of bad news, that was truly valuable, just like money. But that was back then. A few years ago people with a bad message could use that info to their advantage.

But today the economics of information is radically different. There is so much high-quality information accessible at any point in time that downers will have a really hard time "selling" it for a profit or personal gain. A disease is coming from Asia? Google it; then wikipedia it; then email Dr Ping-Pong in Hong Kong, who has worked with such cases hands-on. The loss of biodiversity; the burning of the rainforests; the coming extinctions of black rhinos and perhaps pandas, alongside a massive extinction of uncountable, less-media-grabbing species; the hole in the ozone layer, the epidemic of obesity, the population bomb, global warming, arms trade, you name the disgrace, and in 15 minutes anyone can get high-quality info over broadband.

The change in the economics of information is, to me, the crucial factor behind the fall of the downers.