Tag Archives: society

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 (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=556). 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.

Probability of finding true love

The concept of true love has been invented by poets and other exaggerators. Evolutionarily, the optimal strategy is to settle with a good enough partner, not to seek the best in the world. But suppose for the sake of argument that a person A’s true love is another person B who exists somewhere in the world. What is the probability that A meets B?

There is no a priori reason why A and B have to be from the same country, have similar wealth or political views. Isn’t that what poets would have us believe – that love knows no boundaries, blossoms in unlikely places, etc?

Given the 7 billion people in the world, what fraction of them does a given person meet per lifetime? Depends on what is meant by “meets” – seeing each other from a distance, walking past each other on the street, looking at each other, talking casually. Let’s take literally the cliché “love at first sight” and assume that meeting means looking at each other. A person looks at a different number of people per day depending on whether they live in a city or in the countryside. There is also repetition, i.e. seeing the same person multiple times. A guess at an average number of new people a person looks at per day is 100. This times 365 times a 70-year lifespan is 2555000. Divide 7 billion by this and the odds of meeting one’s true love are thus about one in three thousand per lifetime.

Some questionable assumptions went into this conclusion, for example that the true love could be of any gender or age and that the meeting rate is 100 per day. Restricting the set candidates to a particular gender and age group proportionately lowers the number of candidates met and the total number of candidates, so leaves the conclusion unchanged.

Someone on the hunt for a partner may move to a big city, sign up for dating websites and thereby raise the meeting rate (raise number met while keeping total number constant), which would improve the odds. On the other hand, if recognizing one’s true love takes more than looking at them, e.g. a conversation, then the meeting rate could fall to less than one – how many new people per day do you have a conversation with?

Some people claim to have met their true love, at least in the hearing of their current partner. The fraction claiming this is larger than would be expected based on the calculations above. There may be cognitive dissonance at work (reinterpreting the facts so that one’s past decision looks correct). Or perhaps the perfect partner is with high probability from the same ethnic and socioeconomic background and the same high school class (this is called homophily in sociology). Then love blossoms in the most likely places.

Organ trade restrictions

Trade in human body parts is mostly forbidden, although donations without compensation or for “coverage of reasonable costs” are allowed. One reason is that trade creates the incentive for criminals to harvest organs against people’s will. In the worst case, a young and healthy person is killed to get all their marketable body parts. Another problem is that stupid people may sell their organs voluntarily and later regret it.

The dangers differ depending on how damaging the removal of the organ is. Trade in hearts encourages killing more than trade in donor blood, although even for blood a victim can be drained completely if the price is high enough. For criminals, the complexity of organ removal and how fast it needs to be delivered to the recipient also matter. It would make sense for the restrictions and punishments to correspond to the danger of organ robbery and the associated damage.

The one tissue type currently transferred between people for which organ robbery and overdonation seem nonissues is sperm. Forcing someone to donate against their will is possible, but causes no permanent damage (in my medically ignorant opinion). Too frequent donations lower the quality (number of cells per unit of volume) in a detectable way, which would make most robbed sperm unmarketable. Yet payment for donor sperm is still forbidden in Australia (Human Tissue Act 1982) and many other countries. This may be a knee-jerk extension of the laws against trade in human organs, or there may be some reason I have missed.

On journalistic privilege

Journalists have certain privileges over the average citizen – they get access to inside information, public figures and press conferences. An attack against a journalist creates more outrage, because it is seen as damaging the free press. These advantages are not given so that journalists could make money or satisfy their curiosity. The privileges are provided to help journalists serve the public interest, similarly to the delegation of decision power to politicians. People being people, some journalists abuse the privileges. They do not inform the public, only entertain to make money. This takes the form of sensationalism: covering frivolous topics that sell well, but do not provide useful knowledge. For example celebrity gossip, funny animals, manufactured controversy.

It would be fair to remove journalistic privileges from tabloid reporters and stop calling them journalists. They are just nosy people. The problem is that whoever decides on giving or taking privileges, gets power over the media. Therefore this authority should not be the government, but an independent organization. However, some rights and protections of the media are legislated, so a non-governmental body cannot change them. The legislature would have to delegate its authority in this sphere to the hypothetical independent regulator first. Given how much politicians wish to influence journalists, this decision seems unlikely.

Why taxes hit the middle class

The poor don’t have much wealth or income, so not much to tax. The rich find it worthwhile to hire accountants and lawyers to find loopholes useful for avoiding taxes. Optimizing one’s taxes is almost a fixed cost (does not depend much on the wealth or income), but the benefit is proportional to what is taxed. In other words, there are economies of scale in tax evasion. The middle class is not rich enough for professional loophole-seeking to be profitable, but has enough to tax.
This is only theoretical reasoning. Empirically, the average tax rate increases in income, as far as I know. Whether the rate of increase should be higher or lower than at present is a matter of political preference.
To avoid the unequal treatment based on the ability to hire tax advisors, the tax system should be simple. Changing income from one form to another (salary to dividends for self-employed for example), or changing the source (foreign corporation vs its domestic subsidiary) should not change the tax rate. Minimizing loopholes means no special deductions for belonging to select groups (farmers, pensioners, veterans, parents).
The existence of a profession for providing tax advice to ordinary people is a sign that the tax code is too complex. Those in a common salaried job should be able to understand and file their taxes themselves.

On Trump and strategic voting

Edit 9 Nov 2016: I was wrong. To avoid publication bias, I will leave this post up. It will teach people not to trust my political judgement.

Commenting on Trump is fashionable lately, so let me jump on the bandwagon. Probably these points have all been made before.
It seems the people most against Trump are the Democrat supporters, which suggests they are ignoring strategic voting. A famous voting example is that if A is preferred to B by the majority, B to C and C to A by different majorities (1/3 of people prefer A to B to C, 1/3 prefer B to C to A and 1/3 C to A to B), then with naive voters the order of votes matters. If first the A vs B vote is held and the winner goes against C, then A wins against B, after which C wins against A. But if B and C are voted first, then B wins, after which it loses to A.
One possibility is that Trump is preferred to other Republican candidates, who in turn are preferred to Democrats, who are preferred to Trump. In this case the Democrats should strategically support Trump against other Republicans and be happy that the primary vote between Republicans happens before the general election, not after. A conspiracy theorist might even suspect collusion between Trump and the Democrats or at least secret Democrat support for Trump to split the Republicans, like in the plot of All the King’s Men.
What if the polls show swing voters to favour Trump over the Democrats? Who people claim to support in elections is not necessarily who they actually support (the Bradley effect). Voters may claim to support Trump as a joke, or actually favour him now, but reconsider closer to elections. Putting Trump in power is like a dangerous adventure – there is a thrill at the possibility and many (claim to) want to do it when it is in the distant future. When the opportunity actually arrives, it may look too scary and people may get cold feet.
In the end, if Trump actually becomes President, he has antagonized many Republicans. There is a good chance of a bypartisan effort to block all his initiatives. The crazy and illegal things Trump has promised to do are just election promises – politicians break those all the time. Even reasonable promises are broken – radical ones are even more likely to be ignored. If Trump tries to do the unconstitutional lunacies, both parties have an incentive to impeach him. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, so taking down Trump may be just the thing to make Republicans and Democrats strange bedfellows and narrow the political polarization in the US.

Signalling by encouraging good decisionmaking

Con artists pressure people into quick decisions. Marketing mentions that the offer is for a limited time only, so buy now, no time to read the small print. Date rapists try to get victims drunk or drugged. In all these cases, the goal is to prevent careful reasoning about what is happening and the decisions to be made. Also to prevent the victim from consulting others. Being pressured, confused or bullied while deciding is a danger sign, so one way for honest sellers to distinguish themselves is by encouraging good decisionmaking. Giving people time, referring them to neutral sources of info, asking them to think things over before deciding are all ways to make decisions more accurate.
More accurate decisions distinguish between good and bad deals better, which benefits honest sellers and harms con artists. This differential effect of information on good and bad types enables signalling by precision of information, where good types want to reveal as much as possible and bad types want to obfuscate. Information unravelling results – the best type has an incentive to reveal itself, then the second best type, then the third best etc. By not revealing, one is pooled with the average of the remaining types. In the end, the only type who does not strictly prefer to reveal itself is the worst type.

Why messages of attraction are ambiguous

There are many behaviours by which one human shows being sexually attracted to another – staring at them, running fingers through one’s hair, standing close, smiling at them, etc. Most of these are ambiguous, meaning they can be explained away by nonsexual reasons. Staring may be due to being lost in thought and looking absently at a single point, which happens to contain a person. Adjusting the hair could happen because the hair feels messy. One could randomly stand close to someone, smile because one is happy for unrelated reasons and so on.
There are obvious benefits of clear messages – no wasted effort chasing someone not interested, no awkward situations, no false accusations that one’s partner was sending signals of interest to someone else. Why has evolution led to messages of attraction that create doubt in the observers?
If someone’s sexual advances are unsuccessful, this is interpreted as a negative signal about the rejected person and lowers their chances in the future. Rejection makes one wonder what the rejecter knew about their admirer that is unattractive. If a person has characteristics that makes others reject them, the offspring of that person are likely to inherit these and also be unsuccessful in mating. Unsuccessful offspring mean the fitness of the rejected person is low, justifying rejecting them. This evolutionary mechanism is called Fisherian sexual selection. Because of it, nobody wants to be seen to be rejected. One way to hide rejections is to hide the wooing and if rejected, pretend to be uninterested anyway (sour grapes).
Someone attempting to cheat on their partner obviously does not want others to see their advances on another person. People gossip, so hidden signals with plausible deniability are useful.
Some people take advantage of those attracted to them (the advantage may differ for men and women), so it is good to send messages of attraction only to those who are attracted in return. Someone who is interested pays more attention to a person, so is more likely to notice ambiguous messages from them. Wishful thinking makes an interested recipient interpret mixed messages favourably. Of course there is a positive probability of a mistake, but the difference between the probability of interested people versus unintended recipients noticing a signal is greater for ambiguous than clear messages. This is like encryption – there is a positive probability of friendlies having lost the encryption key, but the difference between the probability of friendlies versus hostiles understanding the message is greater for encrypted text.
Dating websites have probably figured this out, because they allow private messages. An additional improvement may be self-destructing messages that can only be viewed once. This makes it harder for the recipient of a message to prove someone’s interest to others and thus lower their admirer’s reputation after rejecting them. Randomly generating messages of attraction and sending them to people would give plausible deniability to those who are rejected. The benefit of deniability must be weighed against the loss to the recipients of false signals.

Politeness levels transformed in translation

Different languages use different phrasing to express the same level of politeness, formality or familiarity. Directly translating the words from one language to another may result in a sentence at a different (usually unintended) level. This creates the impression that the speakers of a language (usually coinciding with people from a particular country and culture) are all polite or all rude. They simply translate their thought to another language, where the phrasing is above or below the intended level of politeness. This is one way that stereotypes about a nationality’s modesty, assertiveness or formality are created.
As an Estonian in the UK, I was considered rude, because I answered “yes” or “no” instead of “yes, please” or “no, thanks.” In Estonian at the time, “no, thank you” would have been formal or ironic (mockingly formal) and I just translated my ordinary reply to English.
The level of formality in a language changes over time and with social class. A good example is TV series about 19th century Britain, where people say things like “you are too kind, Sir”. In modern times, this would sound strange.

Raising grandchildren, not children

Currently in all species I know of, each generation raises its children, who in turn raise their children, etc. This can be described as an overlapping generations model where each generation lives 2 periods, receives resources from the old of the previous generation in its youth and transfers resources to the young of the next generation when old. There is another equilibrium: each generation raises its grandchildren, has its children raised by its parents, and the children in turn raise their grandchildren. Instead of transferring resources to the next generation and receiving them from the previous, transfer resources two generations forward and receive them from two generations back. There are an infinite number of such equilibria: for each n, transfer resources n generations forward and receive them from n generations back. There are of course practical problems with large n, because the organisms do not live long enough to meet their level-n offspring.

There are complaints in developed countries that childbirth is postponed in life to acquire education and start a career. A possible solution is transitioning to an equilibrium of taking care of grandchildren, together with having children at a young age so that the grandparents are still alive to see the teenage years of their grandchildren. However, the equilibrium transition from taking care of children to taking care of grandchildren means that one generation must raise both children and grandchildren. The equilibrium transition in the other direction is easy – one generation does not raise its children or grandchildren, because its children are raised by its parents and its grandchildren by its children. Any other equilibrium is less stable than the raising-children one, because it is difficult to transition to it and easy to transition away.

The equilibrium stability comparision is similar to the social security equilibria in overlapping generations. In one equilibrium, everyone saves for their own retirement and consumes their savings when old. In another, every generation when young pays the social security costs of the previous generation who is old at the same time. The transition from the saving equilibrium to the equilibrium of paying the previous generation is easy, because one generation gets its savings and the contribution from the young, while the young do not save and receive the contribution of the next generation. The reverse transition is difficult, because one generation does not get a contribution from the young in its old age, but has to finance the retirement of the previous generation when young.