Monthly Archives: April 2017

Silly balconies

Everywhere in Australia, I have seen buildings with balconies that overlook busy roads. The view from the balcony often only includes other buildings. These balconies seem useless, because not many people want to sit in the street noise and car exhaust. I have rarely seen anyone on these balconies, and then only moving around for a practical purpose, not enjoying the air and view. Mostly the balconies are used for storing unwanted furniture and sports equipment, or growing potted plants. This makes sense, because even drying laundry over a busy road is problematic – everything gets covered in fine black soot. What does not make sense is adding these balconies to the buildings in the first place. A more practical use of the space would be to close the open parts of the balcony and thus add an extra room to the apartment. It is used as a storage room anyway.

In some cases, the building might have been constructed before the street became too busy or the views blocked by other buildings, but most of the buildings with balconies are new, so this explanation does not apply.

The reason the developers add balconies to their buildings is probably to market the apartments to impractical people. An included balcony makes the apartment sound more luxurious, and usually the view and relaxation opportunities of the balcony are touted in the advertisement. But people inspect the apartment before buying, so they should see the uselessness of the balcony for anything but storage. Inspections are usually scheduled on Saturdays when there is less traffic, and the inspecting buyers don’t sit on the balcony for long enough to become annoyed by the noise and the car exhaust.

There may be rules against the owner of an apartment closing up the balcony to create a room, because this makes the building facade uneven. Coordination problems between apartment owners may prevent them from closing up all the balconies of the building simultaneously.

Defence against bullying

Humans are social animals. For evolutionary reasons, they feel bad when their social group excludes, bullies or opposes them. Physical bullying and theft or vandalism of possessions have real consequences and cannot be countered purely in the mind. However, the real consequences are usually provable to the authorities, which makes it easier to punish the bullies and demand compensation. Psychological reasons may prevent the victim from asking the authorities to help. Verbal bullying has an effect only via psychology, because vibrations of air from the larynx or written symbols cannot hurt a human physically.

One psychological defense is diversification of group memberships. The goal is to prevent exclusion from most of one’s social network. If a person belongs to only one group in society, then losing the support of its members feels very significant. Being part of many circles means that exclusion from one group can be immediately compensated by spending more time in others.

Bullies instinctively understand that their victims can strengthen themselves by diversifying their connections, so bullies try to cut a victim’s other social ties. The beaters of family members forbid their family from having other friends or going to social events. School bullies mock a victim’s friends to drive them away and weaken the victim’s connection to them. Dictators create paranoia against foreigners, accusing them of spying and sabotage.

When a person has already been excluded from most of their social network, joining new groups or lobbying for readmission to old ones may be hard. People prefer to interact with those who display positive emotions. The negative emotions caused by a feeling of abandonment make it difficult to present a happy and fun image to others. Also, if the „admission committee” knows that a candidate to join their group has no other options, then they are likely to be more demanding, in terms of requiring favours or conformity to the group norms. Bargaining power depends on what each side gets when the negotiations break down – the better the outside option, the stronger the bargaining position. It is thus helpful to prepare for potential future exclusion in advance by joining many groups. Diversifying one’s memberships before the alternative groups become necessary is insurance. One should keep one’s options open, which argues for living in a bigger city, exploring different cultures both online and the real world, and not burning bridges with people who at some point excluded or otherwise acted against one.

There may be a case for forgiving bullies if they take enough nice actions to compensate. Apologetic words alone do not cancel actions, as discussed elsewhere ( Forgiving does not mean forgetting, because past behaviour is informative about future actions, and social interactions are a dynamic game. The entire sharing economy (carsharing, home-renting) is made possible by having people’s reputations follow them even if they try to escape the consequences of their past deeds. The difficulty of evading consequences motivates better behaviour. The same holds in social interactions. In the long run, it is better for everyone, except perhaps the worst people, if past deeds are rewarded or punished as they deserve. If bullying is not punished, then the perpetrators learn this and intensify their oppression in the future.

Of course, the bullies may try to punish those who reported them to the authorities. The threat to retaliate against whistleblowers shows fear of punishment, because people who do not care about the consequences would not bother threatening. The whistleblower can in turn threaten the bullies with reporting to the authorities if the bullies punish the original whistleblowing. The bullies can threaten to punish this second report, and the whistleblower threaten to punish the bullies’ second retaliation, etc. The bullying and reporting is a repeated interaction and has multiple equilibria. One equilibrium is that the bullies rule, therefore nobody dares to report them, and due to not being reported, they continue to rule. Another equilibrium is that any bullying is swiftly reported and punished, so the bullies do not even dare to start the bullying-reporting-retaliation cycle. The bullies rationally try to push the interaction towards the equilibrium where they rule. Victims and goodhearted bystanders should realise this and work towards the other equilibrium by immediately reporting any bullying against anyone, not just oneself.

To prevent insults from creating negative emotions, one should remember that the opinion of only a few other people at one point in time contains little information. Feedback is useful for improving oneself, and insults are a kind of feedback, but a more accurate measure of one’s capabilities is usually available. This takes the form of numerical performance indicators at work, studies, sports and various other tests in life. If people’s opinions are taken as feedback, then one should endeavour to survey a statistically meaningful sample of these opinions. The sample should be large and representative of society – the people surveyed should belong to many different groups.

If some people repeatedly insult one, then one should remember that the meaning of sounds or symbols that people produce (called language) is a social norm. If the society agrees on a different meaning for a given sound, then that sound starts to mean what the people agreed. Meaning is endogenous – it depends on how people choose to use language. On an individual level, if a person consistently mispronounces a word, then others learn what that unusual sound from that person means. Small groups can form their own slang, using words to denote meanings differently from the rest of society. Applying this insight to bullying, if others frequently use an insulting word to refer to a person, then that word starts to mean that person, not the negative thing that it originally meant. So one should not interpret an insulting word in a way that makes one feel bad. The actual meaning is neutral, just the „name” of a particular individual in the subgroup of bullies. Of course, in future interactions one should not forget the insulters’ attempt to make one feel bad.

To learn the real meaning of a word, as used by a specific person, one should Bayes update based on the connection of that person’s words and actions. This also helps in understanding politics. If transfers from the rich to the poor are called „help to the needy” by one party and „welfare” by another, then these phrases by the respective parties should be interpreted as „transfers from the rich to the poor”. If a politician frequently says the opposite of the truth, then his or her statements should be flipped (negation inserted) to derive their real meaning. Bayesian updating also explains why verbal apologies are usually nothing compared to actions.

Practicing acting in a drama club helps to understand that words often do not have content. Their effect is just in people’s minds. Mock confrontations in a play will train a person to handle real disputes.

Learning takes time and practice, including learning how to defend against bullying and ignore insults. Successfully resisting will train one to resist better. Dealing with adversity is sometimes called „building character”. To deliberately train oneself to ignore insults, one may organise an insult competition – if the insulted person reacts emotionally, then the insulter wins, otherwise the insulter loses. As with any training and competition, the difficulty level should be adjusted for ability and experience.

The current trend towards protecting children from even verbal bullying, and preventing undergraduate students from hearing statements that may distress them could backfire. If they are not trained to resist bullying and experience it at some point in their life, which seems likely, then they may be depressed for a long time or overreact to trivial insults. The analogy is living in an environment with too few microbes, which does not build immunity and causes allergy. „Safe spaces” and using only mild words are like disinfecting everything.

The bullies themselves are human, thus social animals, and feel negative emotions when excluded or ignored. If there are many victims and few bullies, then the victims should band together and exclude the bullies in turn. One force preventing this is that the victims see the bullies as the „cool kids” (attractive, rich, strong) and want their approval. The victims see other victims as „losers” or „outsiders” and help victimise them, and the other victims respond in kind. The outsiders do not understand that what counts as „cool” is often a social norm. If the majority thinks behaviour, clothing or slang A cool, then A is cool, but if the majority agrees on B, then B is preferred. The outsiders face a coordination game: if they could agree on a new social norm, then their number being larger than the number of insiders would spread the new norm. The outsiders would become the „cool kids” themselves, and the previously cool insiders would become the excluded outsiders.

Finding new friends helps increase the number who spread one’s preferred norms, as well as insuring against future exclusion by any subset of one’s acquaintances.

If there are many people to choose from when forming new connections, then the links should be chosen strategically. People imitate their peers, so choosing those with good habits as one’s friends helps one acquire these habits oneself. Having friends who exercise, study and have a good work ethic increases one’s future fitness, education and professional success. Criminal, smoking, racist friends nudge one towards similar behaviours and values. Choosing friends is thus a game with one’s future self. The goal is to direct the future self to a path preferred by the current self. The future self in turn directs its future selves. It takes time and effort to replace one’s friends, so there is a switching cost in one’s social network choice. A bad decision in the past may have an impact for a long time.

It may be difficult to determine who is a good person and who is not. Forming a social connection and subtly testing a person may be the only way to find out their true face. For example, telling them a fake secret and asking them not to tell anyone, then observing whether the information leaks. One should watch how one’s friends behave towards others, not just oneself. There is a tradeoff between learning about more people and interacting with only good people. The more connections one forms, the greater the likelihood that some are with bad people, but the more one learns. This is strategic experimentation in a dynamic environment.

Conferences and seminars as cargo cults

I wrote about the wastefulness of physically travelling to conferences or to give seminars, because one could give a presentation via a video call over the internet ( Other than habit or tradition, why would scientists organise conferences and seminars with physical attendance? One explanation I offered was that physical presence is a commitment device. Herding is another justification to any tradition. Irrationality is a third, which complements herding.

Holding conferences and seminars may be rational if top researchers are presenting and providing feedback, because there is much to learn from them. Such workshops may not be useful if the participants are not on the research frontier. Nonetheless, the low-achievers may organise such gatherings, because they want to publish like the high-achievers, and they perceive that the high-achievers benefit from the research meetings of large groups. A cargo cult means imitating someone’s behaviour to reach the same goals as them, but without understanding the reason why their actions lead to the results they do. The lack of comprehension of the underlying mechanism leads the imitation subtly astray, so it does not obtain the desired results. The conferences and seminars of low-achievers are a cargo cult if the following hold: only the participation of high-achievers makes research meetups useful, the high-achievers do not attend low-prestige meetups, and the low-achievers do not understand the above. It is difficult to test the usefulness of any action in research, because publication success is noisy, influenced by many factors and with long delays. Thus it is difficult to test whether there is a cargo cult in the less advanced levels of the research community.

Besides improving quality, the feedback of top researchers can increase publication chances by making the research of those lower in the scientific hierarchy conform to the tastes of the top. This is a horizontal differentiation effect – matching idiosyncratic tastes. It is not vertical differentiation (improving quality). If top people as referees and editors favour a certain field of research or ideology, then presenting work to them may uncover their biases and enable an author to pander to them.

Another way that presenting helps with publication is the familiarity effect. When the referee or editor has seen the paper presented before reading it, then the content is familiar and thus easier to understand. The reader may interpret the ease of comprehension as clarity of the paper, not familiarity of the material. Clear writing and well-structured ideas are a positive signal to the referee and increase the publication chances.

If the second-best people imitate the highest-achievers, then the third-best may imitate the second-best, etc. The cargo cults may be multilayered. Such imitation of imitators is called herding. It may sometimes be individually rational, but may lead to socially suboptimal ignoring of later information in favour of imitating the decisions of those who acted based on earlier info. Herding strengthens the effects of mistaken imitation, thus worsening cargo cult effects.

Cargo cults occur widely – any time there is a fad, fashion or bubble, some people jump on the bandwagon because their role models did, without asking why the role models did so. The personal situation of the trailbreakers may make it rational for them to act in a certain way, but the different circumstances of the followers may make imitation counterproductive for them. An example is creating a financial bubble to profit from it (pump-and-dump strategy). The starters profit from the amount invested by the followers. The last people to become followers lose their investment when the bubble bursts. I am not the first to compare the research community to a pyramid scheme – search „Profzi scheme” online.