Me-nies and We-nies: The Relative Merits of Individualism vs. Collectivism

Hi folks, I’ve got some very smart offline friends with things they occasionally want to share, so I’m giving some of them access to this blog to write posts. Their opinions are not my necessarily opinions (and vice-versa!) so the typical caveat lector applies. I likely won’t add this prefix in future, so if you’re not sure, please check the post author!

Scientists love playing with slime molds. One of their favourite games is arranging oats on a surface in such a way that maps the geographic locations of populations, and then watch the little goobers replicate our transportation networks. Despite being single-celled, brainless organisms, slime molds solve problems of population networking about as well as we do – if not better.[1]

While it was the media coverage of slime molds as tiny, gooey, civil engineers that first drew my attention to them, it was another characteristic of theirs that really piqued my curiosity: “When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows.”[2] And it’s not just food scarcity that tempers the slime mold’s individualistic behavior. Physical threats, such as exposure to electric shocks or hot, dry air, slow the slime mold’s exploratory behavior.[3]

What struck me about the slime mold was how much it reminded me of what I was studying at the time, which dealt with differences between liberals and conservatives. Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’, et cetera) suggests that while liberals are more individual-oriented (“progressive” policies, focusing on personal rights and freedoms), conservatives are more collectivist-oriented (maintaining cultural traditions and protecting social order). I couldn’t help but wondering (in a half-joking kind of way) if people weren’t just complex slime molds, using elaborate post hoc rationalizations to explain a far more primitive set of responses to stimuli in our environment (real or perceived). After all, liberals are notoriously more open to new experiences, and conservatives are more sensitive to perceived physical threat. But if people really do behave like slime molds, then we should be able to do more than explain individual differences within the population. If humans truly fit the  slime mold (sorry), it is predicted that when exposed to threat, individualistic liberals would become more like their collectivist conservative cohorts – and research suggests that they do!

The political arena, true to its namesake, is a combative one, with liberals and conservatives constantly vying for dominance. If either had their way, this dominance would become permanent, as each side believes themselves to be the correct side – not just today, but always. If there is any truth to the idea that liberalism and conservatism are essentially fancy-pants versions of slime mold behavior, the implication would be that neither side is ultimately and forever right – only conditionally so. When times are good, resources are plentiful, and society is secure, an individualist approach may be the best one. However, when times are bad, resources are scarce, and society is threatened, we may be better served by a more collective approach. The question that should guide our actions then is this – to what extent is our current situation either one of plenty and security, or scarcity and threat?

Unfortunately, we are not necessarily accurate interpreters of our reality. Through some combination of innateness and socialization there are, at any given time, those of us who see the world through very different lenses. So, if we want to behave in a manner consistent with the realities of our world with more regularity, then liberals are going to have to start seeing the gorillas in their midst, and conservatives are going to have stop seeing death around every corner.


[1] Of COURSE there’s a TED Talk about them…
[2] Article
[3] In fact, if you zap the wee beasties at regular intervals, it will actually slow its roll in anticipation of the coming shock!

The Efficient Meeting Hypothesis

This is a minor departure from my typical topics, but was something I wrote for work and wanted to share more widely.

Meeting efficiency drops off sharply as the number of people in attendance climbs. A meeting with two or three people is almost always a good use of everyone’s time. If it’s not, the people involved simply stop meeting. Meetings with 4-6 people are worse, but are still generally OK. Meetings with more than 6 people in attendance (counting the organizer) are almost universally awful.

Why are meetings inefficient?

People do not exchange opinions the way machines exchange information. As the number of people grows, so does the number of different opinions, the number of social status games being played (consciously or not), the number of potential side conversations, etc. Achieving consensus gets harder.

In my experience, six people is the limit for anything resembling a useful caucus-style meeting. Above six people, it’s less likely that a given topic (at a given level of abstraction) is of sufficient interest to everyone present. Tangential topics drift so far that by the time everyone has had their say it’s hard to get back on track. Side-conversations start to occur regularly. People who naturally think and speak slowly simply won’t get to speak at all since there will always be somebody else who speaks first.

Why don’t people exit useless meetings?

People mainly stay in useless meetings for two reasons:

  • a variation of the bystander effect where everyone assumes that somebody else must be getting value from the meeting, and nobody wants to be the first to break rank
  • a fear of missing out, because the topics discussed at useless meetings are often so variable (due to tangents and side conversations) it’s hard to know if maybe this will be the moment where something relevant is discussed

How to run an efficient meeting

Keep it as small as possible, and always under 6 people.

How to run an efficient meeting with more than 6 people

You can’t. But if you really think you *have* to…

Give your meeting a rigid structure. Note that this does not just mean “have an agenda document that people can add to ahead of time”. At the minimum you need:

  • A moderator whose only job in the meeting is to moderate (either the meeting organizer or somebody explicitly appointed by them).
  • A talking stick or some digital equivalent. Basically: an explicit process for deciding who gets to speak, and when. A good moderator can manage this entirely verbally for medium-sized groups, but it’s hard. Something explicit is much better.
  • A formal meeting structure and topic, set in advance.

Again, a structure does not just mean “an agenda” or “a slide deck” but some common conversational rules. Here is a list (definitely not exhaustive) of common or useful meeting structures:

  • Stand-Up: each person in turn gets a fixed amount of time (enforced by the moderator) to present to the group.
  • Presentation: one person presents for the majority of the meeting, and then (optionally) holds a question/answer session afterwards.
  • Ask-Me-Anything: the moderator works through a list asking pre-curated questions to specific people.
  • Parliamentary Procedure: this would typically be Robert’s Rules of Order.

Some common pitfalls:

  • Never try to make consensus-based decisions in a meeting with more than 6 people. If a decision has to be made then you must either:
    • Have a smaller meeting. OR
    • Appoint one person the decision-maker in advance, in which case the meeting is actually about presenting and arguing to that person, not the actual making of the decision. OR
    • Use a majority-rules process (typically a vote), in combination with a more parliamentary structure (Robert’s Rules of Order or others).
  • The moderator absolutely cannot talk about anything other than the meta-level (moderating) unless they also hold the talking stick. Ideally the moderator has no stake in the actual topic of the meeting to begin with.
  • The moderator cannot be “nice”. Shut down tangents and off-topics aggressively.
  • Avoid automatically-recurring large meetings like the plague. They shouldn’t be frequent enough to bother auto-booking them to begin with, and the manual process will make it much easier to stop holding them when they are no longer useful.

Optimizing for the Apocalypse

If you’ve read many of my past posts, you’ll know that I have sometimes struggled with an internal conflict between what I would basically characterize as conservative or right-wing intuitions, and a fairly liberal or left-wing set of concrete beliefs. It’s also one of the things that I mentioned in my initial brain-dump of a post after reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I guess this is technically a continuation of the posts spawned by that book, but it pulls in enough other things that I’m not going to number it anymore.

Haidt’s book doesn’t really address my internal conflict directly; what it does do is talk about liberal and conservative moral intuitions in a way that I found really clarified for me what the conflict was about. Conveniently, in the way that the universe sometimes works, shortly after thinking about that topic a bunch I then read A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. This post by Scott Alexander has nothing to do with Haidt, except that it ends up doing for the “why” of the question what Haidt did for the “what”. And so I now have a pretty nicely packaged understanding of what’s going on in that section of my brain.

Moral Foundations Theory

Let’s start with Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt there are six “moral foundations”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Each of us has moral intuitions on roughly these six axes, and the amount of weight we put on each axis can vary between people, cultures, etc. Conveniently according to Haidt, the amount of weight we put on each axis tracks really nicely as part of the right/left political divide present in the Western world. Libertarians (sometimes called “classical liberals”) strongly value liberty; liberals (the left) put much more emphasis on harm and fairness while mostly ignoring the others; conservatives (the right) value all of them roughly equally, thus leaving them as the effective champions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This is already a very helpful labelling system for me, since it lets me be clearer when I talk about my conflicts. I tend to believe in a lot political ideas that are associated with the left, like a robust social safety net. But, I believe that loyalty, authority, and sanctity have real moral value, and are generally undervalued by the modern left. This isn’t a direct logical conflict (there’s nothing about loyalty that is fundamentally incompatible with a robust social safety net) but it does put me in a sometimes awkward spot between the two “tribes”, especially as the left and right become increasingly polarized in modern politics.

Thriving and Surviving

So Haidt’s system has already been pretty helpful in giving me a better understanding of what exactly the conflict is. But it doesn’t really explain why the conflict is: why I came to hold liberal views despite conservative intuitions. I imagine most people with my intuitions naturally grow up to hold fairly conservative political views as well; it’s the path of least internal resistance. This is where thrive/survive theory comes in. Alexander summarizes it like this:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

This is conveniently similar to behaviour observed in the wild among, for example, slime molds:

When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows. 

This combined slime mold expends a great deal of energy, and ends up sacrificing itself in order to spore and give the mold a chance to start a new life somewhere else. It’s the slime mold equivalent of Gandalf facing the Balrog, spending his own life to ensure the survival of his friends.

And, it also conveniently aligns with Haidt’s moral foundations: of the six foundations, there are three that are fundamentally important for the survival of the group in an unsafe environment: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The other three (care, fairness, and liberty) are important, but are much more likely to be sacrificed for “the greater good” in extreme situations.

This all ties together really nicely. I grew up in a stable, prosperous family in a stable, prosperous country that is still, despite some recent wobbles, doing really really well on most measures. The fact is that my environment is extremely safe, and I’m a sucker for facts combined with rational argument. But twin studies have generally shown that while political specifics are mostly social and not genetic (nurture, not nature), there is a pretty strong genetic component to ideology and related personality traits which, I would hypothesize, boil down in one aspect to Haidt’s moral foundations.

In summary then, the explanation is that I inherited a fairly “conservative” set of intuitions optimized for surviving in an unsafe environment. But, since my actual environment is eminently safe, my rational mind has dragged my actual specific views towards the more practically correct solutions. I wonder if this makes me a genetic dead end?

In other words: I want to optimize for the apocalypse, but fortunately the apocalypse seems very far away.

When is it Wrong to Click on a Cow?

Three Stories

Imagine, for a moment, three young adults recently embarked on the same promising career path. The first comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings practising and playing a musical instrument. The second comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings practising and playing a video game. The third comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings hooked up to a machine which directly stimulates the pleasure and reward centres of their brain.

How do these people make you feel?

For some people with more libertarian, utilitarian, or hedonistic perspectives, all three people are equally positive. They harm no-one, and are spending their time on activities they enjoy and freely chose. We can ask nothing more of them.

And yet this perspective does not line up with my intuitions. For me, and I suspect for many people, the musician’s choice of hobby is laudable, the gamer’s is relatively neutral, and the “stimmer”‘s (the person with the brain-stimulating machine) is distinctly repugnant in a way that feels vaguely ethics-related. It may be difficult to actually draw that repugnance out in clear moral language – after all, no-one is being harmed – but still… they’re not the kind of person you’d want your children to marry.

The Good and The Bad

Untangling the “why” of these intuitions is quite an interesting problem. Technically all three hobbies rely on hijacking the reward centres of the brain, whose original evolutionary advantages were more to do with food, sex, and other survival-related tasks. There’s a fairly short path from arguing that the stimmer’s behaviour is repugnant to arguing that all three cases are repugnant; after all none of them result in food or anything truly “productive”. But this tack also seems to go a bit against our intuitions.

Fortunately, the world has a lot of different video games, and we can use that range to draw out some more concrete differences. At the low-end are games like Cow Clicker and Cookie Clicker, which are so basic as to be little more than indirect versions of the reward-centre-stimulating machine. More complex games seem to intuitively fair a little better, as do games with a non-trivial social element. Games that directly attempt to train us in some way also seem to do a little better, whether they actually work or not.

Generalizing slightly, it seems like the things we care about to make video games more “positive” are roughly: transferable skills, personal growth, and social contact. But this model doesn’t seem to fit so well when applied to learning an instrument. You could argue that it includes transferable skills, but the obvious candidates only transfer to other instruments and forms of musicianship, not to anything strictly “practical”. Similarly, social contact is a positive, but it’s not a required component of learning an instrument. Playing in a group seems distinctly better than learning it by yourself, but learning it on your own still seems like a net positive. Our final option of “personal growth” now seems very wishy-washy. Yes, learning an instrument seems to be a clear case of personal growth, but… what does that mean exactly? How is it useful, if it doesn’t include transferable skills or social contact?

There are a few possible explanations that I’m not going to explore fully in this essay, since it would take us a bit far afield from the point I originally wanted to address. For one, perhaps music is seen as more of a shared or public good, one that naturally increases social cohesion. It seems plausible that maybe our intuitions just can’t account for somebody learning music entirely in private, with no social benefits.

Another approach would be to lean on Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind and its Moral Foundations Theory. Certainly none of the three people are causing harm with their actions, but perhaps they are triggering one of our weirder loyalty or sanctity intuitions?

Thirdly, perhaps the issue with the third hobby is less “it’s not useful” and more of a concern than it’s actively dangerous. We know from experiments on rats (and a few unethical ones on humans) that such machines can lead to addictive behaviour and very dangerous disregard for food and other critical needs. Perhaps as video games become more indirect, they become less addictive and simply less dangerous.

Moral Obligations

Really though, these questions are being unpacked in order to answer the more interesting one in this essay’s title: when is it wrong to click on a cow? Or slightly less metaphorically: what moral obligations do we have around how we spend our leisure time? Should I feel bad about reading a book if it doesn’t teach me anything? Should I feel bad about going out to see a show if it’s not some deep philosophical exploration of the human spirit? What about the widely-shat-upon genre of reality television?

Even more disturbingly, what are the implications for just hanging out with your friends? Surely that’s still a good thing?

If I generalize my intuitions well past my ability to back them up with reason, we have some weak moral obligation to spend our time in a way that benefits our group, either through direct development of publicly beneficial skills like music, or through more general self-improvement in one form or another, or through socializing and social play and the resulting group bonding. Anything that we do entirely without benefit to others is onanistic and probably wrong.

The final question is then: what if that isn’t what I find enjoyable? How much room is there in life for reading trashy novels and watching the Kardashians? The moral absolutist in me suggests that there is none; that we must do our best to optimize what little time we have as effectively as possible. But that’s a topic for another post.