Crony Beliefs, by Kevin Simler

Must read. The way we are and we act.

"The human brain has to strike an awkward balance between two different reward systems:

- Meritocracy, where we monitor beliefs for accuracy out of fear that we'll stumble by acting on a false belief; and

- Cronyism, where we don't care about accuracy so much as whether our beliefs make the right impressions on others."

"It's also important to remember that we have many different audiences to posture and perform in front of. These include friends, family, neighbors, classmates, coworkers, people at church, other parents at our kids' preschool, etc. And a belief that helps us with one audience might hurt us with another.

Behind every crony belief, then, lies a rat's nest of complexity. In practice, this means we can never know (with any certainty) what caused a given belief to be adopted, at least not from the outside. There are simply too many different incentives — too many possible postures in front of too many audiences — to try to calculate how a given belief might be in someone's best interest. Only the brain of the believer is in a position to weigh all the tradeoffs involved — and even then it might make a mistake. When discussing specific beliefs, then, we must proceed with extreme caution and humility. In fact, it's probably best to stick to stereotypes and generalizations."

"First, it's important to remember that merit beliefs aren't necessarily true, nor are crony beliefs necessarily false. What distinguishes the two concepts is how we're rewarded for them: via effective actions or via social impressions. The best we can say is that merit beliefs are more likely to be true."

"What makes this task difficult is that crony beliefs are designed to mimic ordinary merit beliefs. That said, something in our brains has to be aware — dimly, at least — of which beliefs are cronies, or else we wouldn't be able to give them the coddling that they need to survive inside an otherwise meritocratic system. (If literally no one at Acme knew that Robert was a crony employee, he'd quickly be fired.) The trick, then, is to look for differences in how merit beliefs and crony beliefs are treated by the brain.

From first principles, we should expect ordinary beliefs to be treated with level-headed pragmatism. They have only one job to do — model the world — and when they do it poorly, we suffer. This naturally leads to such attitudes as a fear of being wrong and even an eagerness to be criticized and corrected. As Karl Popper and (more recently) David Deutsch have argued, knowledge can't exist without criticism. If we want to be right in the long run, we have to accept that we'll often be wrong in the short run, and be willing to do the needful thing, i.e., discard questionable beliefs. This may sound vaguely heroic or psychologically difficult, somehow, but it's not. A meritocracy experiences no anguish in letting go of a misbelief and adopting a better one, even its opposite. In fact, it's a pleasure. If I believe that my daughter's soccer game starts at 6pm, but my neighbor informs me that it's 5pm, I won't begrudge his correction — I'll be downright grateful.

Crony beliefs, on the other hand, get an entirely different treatment. Since we mostly don't care whether they're making accurate predictions, we have little need to seek out criticism for them. (Why would Acme bother monitoring Robert's performance if they never intend to fire him?) Going further, crony beliefs actually need to be protected from criticism. It's not that they're necessarily false, just that they're more likely to be false — but either way, they're unlikely to withstand serious criticism. Thus we should expect our brains to take an overall protective or defensive stance toward our crony beliefs."

"But perhaps the biggest hallmark of epistemic cronyism is exhibiting strong emotions, as when we feel proud of a belief, anguish over changing our minds, or anger at being challenged or criticized. These emotions have no business being within 1000ft of a meritocratic belief system — but of course they make perfect sense as part of a crony belief system, where cronies need special protection in order to survive the natural pressures of a meritocracy."

"Note also that "believing" something doesn't necessarily mean we have to act on it. In fact we seem perfectly willing to ignore our crony beliefs when acting on them would be inconvenient. This is reminiscent of Robin Hanson's near mode/far mode dichotomy (crony beliefs being held in far mode, action-oriented merit beliefs in near mode). Or as Louis C.K. puts it: "I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of 'em.... I just like believing them. I like that part. They're my little believies; they make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I fucking do that."

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