Deontology Or Trustworthiness?

Conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Molly Crockett:

What we found was that if you enhance people's serotonin function, it makes them more deontological in their judgments. We had some ideas for why this might be the case, to do with serotonin and aversive processing—the way we deal with losses.

It certainly seems as if the internet renders everyone more deontological than consequentialist. Perhaps it's the performative aspect of publishing on that stage, the norm of using those networks for signaling, that leads everyone up the steps to their high horses.

CROCKETT:  Yeah. Indignation, or a retaliative desire to punish wrongdoing, is the product of a much less deliberative system. We have some data where we gave people the opportunity to punish by inflicting a financial cost on someone who treated them unfairly or fairly, and we varied whether the person who was going to get punished would find out if they'd been punished or not. We were able to do this by making the size of the overall pie ambiguous.
If people are punishing others in order to enforce a social norm and teach a lesson—I'm punishing you because I think you've done something wrong and I don't want you to do this again—then people should only invest in punishment if the person who's being punished finds out they've been punished. If punishment is rational and forward‑looking in this way, it's not worth it to punish when the person isn't going to find out they've been punished.
This is not what we find at all. In fact, people punish almost the same amount, even when the target of punishment will never find out that they've been punished. This would suggest that punishment, revenge, a desire for retaliation are a knee-jerk reaction, a retrospective evaluation of the harm, rather than a goal‑directed deliberative desire to promote the greater good.


We've done experiments where we give people the option to play a cooperative game with someone who endorses deontological morality, who says there are some rules that you just can't break even if they have good consequences. We compare that to someone who's consequentialist, who says that there are certain circumstances in which it is okay to harm one person if that will have better consequences. The average person would much rather interact with and trust a person who advocates sticking to moral rules. This is interesting because it suggests that, in addition to the cognitive efficiency you get by having a heuristic for morality, it can also give you social benefits.

One of my sisters won a school auction prize in which my niece Lyla, who is six, could have a special lunch with her teacher. She had the opportunity to invite one friend, and rather than choose her best friend, she chose the girl in the class with special needs. This girl can't speak, so Lyla spent the day communicating with the girl through an iPad. I saw the photos and was so moved that she would be so generous at such a young age.

In a family email thread one of my brothers joked that we needed to send around photos of all my other nieces and nephews (nine in total!) doing noble things as confirmation they weren't all monsters. Smiley emoji's all around, but there's an element of that on the web now. If something grave happens in the world and you haven't heard of it, god forbid you post some humorous at that moment lest ye be judged summarily and without mercy by the humourless scolds on the internet.

But observe enough trolls on the internet and you see why signaling your virtue, or your deontological creds, might be critical to passing through the morality filters which maintain the norms of good decorum on whatever internet space you're traveling through.

KAHNEMAN:  The benefit that people get from taking a deontological position is that they look more trustworthy. Let's look at the other side of this. If I take a consequentialist position, it means that you can't trust me because, under some circumstances, I might decide to break the rule in my interaction with you. I was puzzled when I was looking at this. What is the essence of what is going on here? Is it deontology or trustworthiness? It doesn't seem to be the same to say we are wired to like people who take a deontological position, or we are wired to like people who are trustworthy. Which of these two is it?

CROCKETT:  What the work suggests is that we infer how trustworthy someone is going to be by observing the kinds of judgments and decisions that they make. If I'm interacting with you, I can't get inside your head. I don't know what your utility function looks like. But I can infer what that utility function is by the things that you say and do.

This is one of the most important things that we do as humans. I've become increasingly interested in how we build mental models of other people's preferences and beliefs and how we make inferences about what those are, based on observables. We infer how trustworthy someone is going to be based on their condemnation of wrongdoing and their advocating a hard-and-fast morality over one that's more flexible.

War for the roads

Drawing on these arguments about power, precedence, and morality—and, also, through sheer numbers—pedestrians, drivers, and bicyclists all make strong claims to the streets. And yet the picture is even more complex, because almost no one is exclusively a walker, a cyclist, or a driver. We shift from role to role, and with those changes comes a shift in our vantage point.

There is, therefore, another, and perhaps more fundamental, source for our sense of vehicular entitlement: egocentricity. We all experience the world from our own point of view, and find it exceedingly difficult to move away from that selfish anchor. (Psychologists call this our egocentric bias.) Who we are colors what and how we see, and who we are changes depending on our mode of transportation. When we walk, we’re pedestrians. When we’re in a car, we’re drivers. When we bike, we’re cyclists. And whoever we are at the moment, we feel that we are deserving of priority.

When it comes to in-the-moment judgment, we don’t think abstractly, in terms of rules or laws or even common sense. We think concretely, in terms of our own personal needs at that very moment. It takes a big, effortful leap to tear ourselves out of that mode and accept someone else’s argument—and it’s an effort we don’t often make unless we’re specifically prompted to do so. And so, in some sense, it doesn’t matter who came first, or who’s the most powerful, or who’s best for the environment, or what the rules might say. What matters is what we, personally, happen to be doing. It’s hard to remind ourselves that we all play interchangeable roles within the urban landscape. In the end, it’s the role we’re in right now that matters. The never-ending war between bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians reflects a basic, and often wrong, mental shortcut, upon which we all too often rely: Who is in the right? I am.

Maria Konnikova speaks the truth on the battle for our streets and sidewalks among cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Nowadays I spend about equal time as a driver, pedestrian, and cyclist, and the only conclusion I feel confident drawing is that everyone is wrong sometimes. Some drivers are terrifying, some cyclists are obnoxious, and many pedestrians are oblivious and inconsiderate.

Physics renders a car more dangerous than a bike which in turn is more dangerous than a pedestrian. All things being equal, I'm more terrified of road rage than obnoxious cyclists, and I'm more upset at reckless bike messengers than careless pedestrians. I'm more than ready for the age of the self-driving car because the combination of humans, with their emotional volatility and egocentricity, and a several thousand pound hunk of metal and glass is, when in motion, a movable instrument of death.

The Robin Hood morality test

The Sheriff of Nottingham captured Little John and Robin Hood and imprisoned them in his maximum-security dungeon. Maid Marion begged the Sheriff for their release, pleading her love for Robin. The Sheriff agreed to release them only if Maid Marion spent the night with him. To this she agreed. The next morning the Sheriff released his prisoners. Robin at once demanded that Marion tell him how she persuaded the Sheriff to let them go free. Marion confessed the truth, and was bewildered when Robin abused her, called her a slut, and said that he never wanted to see her again. At this Little John defended her, inviting her to leave Sherwood with him and promising lifelong devotion. She accepted and they rode away together.

How would you rank the four people in terms of their morality and honesty? This is the Robin Hood morality test, written by a Sydney marriage expert. Submit your answer and then see the distribution of answers from others, as well as an analysis of what your ranking says about you.

Why no one understands you

Most of the time, Halvorson says, people don’t realize they are not coming across the way they think they are. “If I ask you,” Halvorson told me, “about how you see yourself—what traits you would say describe you—and I ask someone who knows you well to list your traits, the correlation between what you say and what your friend says will be somewhere between 0.2 and 0.5. There’s a big gap between how other people see us and how we see ourselves.”
This gap arises, as Halvorson explains in her book, from some quirks of human psychology. First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion”—the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.
Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment.

From this piece at the Atlantic, an overview of concepts from Heidi Grant Halverson's No One Understands You and What to Do About It. A useful catalog of psychological concepts like the primacy effect that are in play, and just good general advice not just for the home but the workplace.

We live in our own heads, it's not surprising we overestimate our own emotional transparency. In film school, for one class on directing actors, all of us directors spent time trying to emote into a mirror (you can also videotape yourself and watch yourself live to really amp up your own discomfort). It was a useful exercise in realizing just how inscrutable most people's faces can be, and also how hard it is to be a great actor. The concept of bitchy resting face is humorous but is just one example of how much baseline information asymmetry exists in day to day human relations.

The easiest solution? Overcompensate on communicating your feelings, and do so explicitly and specifically. 

“If you want to solve the problem of perception,” Halverson says, “it’s much more practical for you to decide to be a good sender of signals than to hope that the perceiver is going to go into phase two of perception. It’s not realistic to expect people to go to that effort. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to weigh every possible motivation of another person? Plus, you can’t control what’s going on inside of another person’s mind, but you can control how you come across.”
People who are easy to judge—people who send clear signals to others, as Halvorson suggests people do—are, researchers have found, ultimately happier and more satisfied with their relationships, careers, and lives than those who are more difficult to read. It’s easy to understand why: Feeling understood is a basic human need. When people satisfy that need, they feel more at peace with themselves and with the people around them, who see them closer to how they see themselves.

When introverts should drink coffee

In his book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, psychologist Brian Little argues that introverts shouldn't drink coffee before an important meeting, or anything like it.

Why does coffee seem to have this effect on introverts?
This isn't my own research, but it's based on the theory of extraversion by Hans Eysenck and research by William Revelle of Northwestern University. It's the idea that introverts and extraverts differ in the level of neocortical arousal in the brain — in other words, how alert or responsive you are to your environment. According to this theory, introverts are over the optimal level — that is, more easily stimulated — and extraverts under the optimal level. 

It's more complex than that, but this is a useful model because it allows us to make some predictions. This suggests that performance will be compromised for introverts if they are exposed to stimulating situations, or if they ingest a stimulant (such as caffeine),which pushes them even further away from the optimal level. 

So when should introverts have their coffee, then?
Later in the day would be better; at any rate, they should try not to have caffeine right before something like an important meeting, as I say in the book.

Optimal robot personality

They gave them distinct personalities. It was an experiment: would humans react to the robots differently based on how they carried themselves? They tried out two different personalities on each robot. One version was extraverted; the robot would speak loudly and quickly, use more animated hand gestures, and start conversations instead of waiting to be spoken to. The other personality was more reserved, speaking much more slowly and quietly, moving around less, and letting the user initiate communication.

What the researchers found, as they described in a recently published paper, was a striking difference between the two. When it came to the nurse robot, people preferred and trusted it more when its personality was outgoing and assertive. What people wanted in a security guard was exactly the opposite: the livelier, extraverted version clearly rubbed people the wrong way. Not only were they less confident in its abilities, and dubious that it would keep them away from danger, they simply liked it less overall.


What researchers are finding is that it’s not enough for a machine to have an agreeable personality—it needs the right personality. A robot designed to serve as a motivational exercise coach, for instance, might benefit from being more intense than a teacher-robot that plays chess with kids. A museum tour guide robot might need to be less indulgent than a personal assistant robot that’s supposed to help out around the house.

A growing body of research is starting to reveal what works and what doesn’t. And although building truly human-like robots will probably remain technologically impossible for a long time to come, researchers say that imbuing machines with personalities we can understand doesn’t require them to be “human-like” at all. To hear them describe the future is to imagine a world—one coming soon—in which we interact and even form long-term relationships with socially gifted devices that are designed to communicate with us on our terms. And what the ideal machine personalities turn out to be may expose needs and prejudices that we’re not even aware we have.

More here. How many of our personality preferences for robots will we inherit from the human analogues we're most familiar with? We may wish for a robot personal trainer to be tough, forceful, while we may prefer a calm, almost flat affect from our robot therapist.

Regardless, I'm excited to see the first generation of robots or AI's with personality roll out to the world. It feels like one of the most likely vectors of delight in user experience design when it comes to AI.

Impact of landscape on time horizon of your thinking

To reach that conclusion Dr van Vugt and his team randomly assigned 47 participants either to look at three city photographs, or three country photographs, for two minutes each. After that participants were asked to pick between €100 ($135) now or a larger sum, which grew in €10 increments up to €170, in 90 days’ time. Those beholding natural landscapes made the switch to deferred gratification at a sum, known as the indifference point, that was 10% below those who scanned cityscapes. The same was true when another 43 volunteers were asked either to walk in an actual forest outside Amsterdam or in the city's commercial area of Zuidas.


It turns out our environment, the landscape we're in, may affect the time horizon of our decision-making. It's still not clear why.

What, then, is it about brooks and meadows that propels thoughts of the beyond? Dr van Vugt speculates that competition—for jobs, attractive partners and large bank accounts—is concentrated within cities, rendering them unpredictable. Unpredictability may in turn shunt people onto the fast lane. He admits, however, that the study does not determine whether cities spur impulsive behaviour, or whether the countryside inspires patience. Or, indeed, whether the effect holds for different types of non-urban locale. Sublime deserts or the Arctic tundra may be (as Coleridge himself would be the first to aver). But their inhospitability makes them possibly more unpredictable for their human inhabitants even than bustling Amsterdam.


Whatever the reason, for long-term planning, it may indeed pay to get away from it all and escape into nature.

Fundamental attribution error and tech mercenaries

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one's own behavior—where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration. This discrepancy between attributions for one's own behavior and for that of others is known as the actor–observer bias.

From Wikipedia. I've always heard fundamental attribution error used to describe people. But more and more, I believe it's applicable to companies as well.

That's not to say it isn't also still a problem when applied to people in technology. For example, a common belief is that tech workers in Silicon Valley are more mercenary than in other tech markets like Seattle or New York.

When I moved up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in mid 2011, I was curious to experience this supposedly venal culture firsthand.

Having worked in all three of those markets over many years now (and also having been at Hulu for three and a half years in Los Angeles), I'm not so sure the people are more mercenary in Silicon Valley. Much of the short tenures in the Bay Area may be explainable by the environment rather than some intrinsic ruthlessness on the part of the people living in the area.

For one thing, the number of tech companies in Silicon Valley just dwarfs that in any of those other tech markets. Sure, fewer people left Amazon than I would have expected , but if you wanted to stay in Seattle, where else would you go? To Microsoft? Real Networks?

The number of startups in the Bay Area also exceeds that of any other tech market by a huge margin. Since startups have such a high failure rate, inevitably it drags down job tenures.

If you control for those two factors, would the Bay Area still rate as having a more mercenary culture? Someone with access to more data would seem to be able to answer this question quite easily (maybe LinkedIn has enough data to run such an analysis). My hypothesis, just based on my personal experience, is that the Bay Area's supposedly mercenary culture is just a technology version of the fundamental attribution error.

If you're operating outside of the Bay Area and feeling fairly secure with your workforce, though, beware. The world is changing, and the fight is coming to your doorstep. For one thing, LinkedIn and other such services have made it easier and easier for other companies all over the place to reach your employees with enticing offers. If you don't think every one of your employees is receiving multiple offers a week, if not per day, from recruiters and headhunters and LinkedIn, you may be living in the 90's.

Think you're safe because your employees don't want to relocate? More and more companies are going to where the people are, opening satellite offices in any market with a good base of talent. Shoppers in many states may not be the only ones lamenting the fact that they now must pay sales tax on Amazon purchases. Competitors are also feeling the hit as Amazon now has free reign to open offices in those states and staff them with abandon. There are three major Amazon offices in the Bay Area already, and they're recruiting aggressively. But the same thing is happening in Seattle, Amazon's home court; Facebook and Google, among others, have opened offices there. 

This is not to mention the fact that some of the best employees can choose to work from wherever they want. It's rare, but not as much as it once was. Almost every company I've worked at in my career now has some employees who work by themselves out of some random place. They're good enough, and the demand for their skills so far outstrips supply, that they spend most of their work year in a remote destination of their choice, maybe a home office in their hometown in North Dakota.

All of this is good news for employees, who now have more options as the liquidity and efficiency of the labor market surges. For employers, it's difficult to say whether it's a positive or negative thing. If you treat it as a zero-sum game versus employees, it must by definition be a negative if employees are gaining.

Within the tech sector, though, one might hypothesize that companies that can offer more cash benefit from being able to compete for employees anywhere. Startups who need compete on the uncertain benefits of stock options more than cash now must contend with the tech giants, if even if the startups locate in more remote markets. However, this might just filter out those who who are risk averse and who'd flee at the first sign of adversity.

I began this post as an examination of the myth of the Bay Area mercenary culture, but the larger theme may really be the reduction of labor arbitrage in the tech industry. By no means has it disappeared entirely, I am not advising you start your next startup in Kansas City. If Jeff Bezos were starting in today's environment, though, it's not a slam dunk that he'd still choose Seattle.