Still against automaticity

by Suspended Reason

The psychology studies that got debunked in the replication crisis weren’t random; they were part of a theory or worldview that’s still pervasive, and we need to consider what it means for that worldview to be false. (Sarah Constantin, Twitter)

In rationalist and evpsych discourse, signaling” is often motte-and-bailey’d. If pressed, the idea is treated as a neutral biological phenomenon, but in casual usage, it’s typically used accusatorily, as a pejorative, a synonym of wasteful boasting.” Activities and individuals are summarily dismissed for spending significant energy on signaling. But the ethologist knows: Signaling” is just another word for communication”! It would be very strange to dismiss an activity for being communication-intensive, given that the modern educated class (i.e. everyone involved in signaling discourse) spends the vast majority of their time communicating. Communication games may be more or less necessary, more or less wasteful. Sometimes they incline toward zero-sum, but usually they’re meaningfully positive sum. But describing communication we dislike, or don’t understand the point of, as signaling” just muddies the waters. We should strive to more clearly articulate the kinds of games, and the kinds of gameplay, that we find unethical. My hope is that we can make progress on this during S2.

A similar thing happens with behavioral economic (BE) discourse around the concept of a nudge. NB: I cannot speak for BEs steelmen; instead, I’m responding for the way nudge and similar BEs concepts are treated in casual, para-academic discourse, including governance and public policy. This is the automaticity” worldview critiqued by Literal Banana and defended by Scott Alexander. In this view, the nudged individual is an irrational actor controlled by unconscious cues—a sheep in need of herding. This is why nudge theory, and behavioral economics more broadly, is so appealing to the Professional Managerial Class.

But note that metaphor of the herded sheep. The sheep nudged” by the dog is neither mindless nor irrational; rather, it is trying to avoid being nipped or bitten by the heeler. The manipulation” of the sheep happens by objectively changing the sheep’s game state”—by moving a predatory animal (the canine) closer to one part of the herd or another, changing the objective incentive structure of the herded animal.

Similarly, I want to argue that successful nudges are only rarely magical’ manipulations of irrational individuals. Rather, they are typically interventions in the objective structure of an individual’s incentives, honestly communicated to that individual. Indeed, they are not even properly classed as psychological effects, and there may be nothing in need of study. No one needs to study why, when the NBA changes traveling rules and communicates these new rules to players, said players change their dribbling and driving patterns.

I’ll give an example to illustrate what I mean. Let’s talk about the new Square-based/digital & tablet-based tipping system, because it’s one we’re all very familiar with. Moreover, because it’s a relatively new innovation (read: environmental disruption), we’re still adjusting to it, and IMO are in a pretty frustrating equilibrium. The combination of novelty + bad equilibrium leads to a lot of frustration and consciousness, which I think all of us are familiar with. (Well-established, working equilibria are often naturalized—they are unconscious and taken for granted.)

Scott Alexander, in his defense of the behavioral economics worldview (i.e. “automaticity”), writes about the strongest nudge finding yet:

The default option significantly changed the average tip customers gave. This isn’t a p = 0.04 effect in a lab, this is a real example with real money with 13 million data points. The authors then go on to replicate this in a different dataset of millions of taxi rides. Also, I met a psychologist who worked at Uber or Lyft (I can’t remember which), who confirmed that their company had replicated this research, and put lots of effort into deciding which default tip options to give customers because obviously it affected customer behavior.

If you set default tips to 18, 20, and 22% you get higher tips on average. Surprise! But I think some really basic phenomenological introspection (which Banana advocates for, and Scott dismisses) tells us why (1) this isn’t at all surprising (2) this isn’t a psychological effect, and isn’t evidence of the automaticity worldview. So why do people tip more?

  1. It’s objectively a bit of a hassle to choose non-default tipping options. (It takes more thought and more time.)
  2. There’s implicit social pressure not to—it feels rude to give less than the default social expectation. 15% is a polite tip in Mexico (where the standard is 10%) but rude in the United States if you have a large dinner party (where the expectation is 20%).

In other words, the default tip communicates a baseline of social expectation. How someone behaves relative to baseline social expectation determines whether they’re being nice” or mean,” polite” or rude.” The effect is particularly acute if you’re out buying a coffee or taking a taxi ride with a friend who might look over your shoulder and see whether you’re a generous tipper or a stingy little shit. In other words, the customer rationally behaves in a way as to communicate politeness—politeness being tethered to social expectation.

This is all pretty obvious stuff, but it actively undermines the automaticity worldview. Insofar as this is a psychological effect” or manipulation, it is downstream of objective changes to the game, that is, to the space of payouts. What the phenomenological introspection conveys is that in fact, default-tippers are being intensely rational—they just understand the social game better than social scientists.

Strictly speaking, perhaps it’s fair to say that you can manipulate” people into making certain choices if you change the game’s structure of payouts and then communicate those changed payouts to them. But this is less a psychological effect deserving extensive study, and more just a tautological extension of what incentives are.

And this is the point of Simler’s Ads Don’t Work That Way as well (cited in Banana’s OP). Changing the social meaning of options is equivalent to changing their payouts:

Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party.

Anyway, I think this whole disagreement is ripe for a torque-style deconstruction, because it’s arguing over connotations and spirits: Are we irrational and biased (as Kahneman might have it), or are we boundedly rational and using heuristics that sometimes fail (as Gigerenzer might have it)? There’s a synthesis here that’s useful, and it’s probably Bourdieusean habitus: Production [i.e. gameplay] is neither freely agentic nor structurally determined, rather, the field constitutes a space of possibles—the potential moves which might be understood by others as moves—from which the [player], according to his disposition and his assessment of the field, selects.” But I wanted to first lay out an antithesis, and argue it forcefully. Insofar as nudge” effects belong to a field of study, they belong to game design and communication.

Collin offers a useful path forward:

The question is whether [a nudge] is something that survives deliberate anti-inductivity—that is, whether someone who has already decided to tip 10% for a conscious reason will [see their decision] overridden.