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Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. He has a doctorate in social science, master’s degrees in physics and philosophy, and nine years of experience as a research programmer in artificial intelligence and Bayesian statistics.
With over 3100 citations and sixty academic publications, he’s recognized not only for his contributions to economics (especially, pioneering the theory and use of prediction markets), but also for the wide range of fields in which he’s been published. He is the author of The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth.
Robin has strong and controversial views (backed by his research) regarding various institutions in society, and discusses how many routine activities we take for granted, carry hidden motives based on the evolution of ourselves and our society. Some of the points we touch on are items such as, how charities don’t really exist to help others, our schools don’t really exist to educate students, and our political expression isn’t actually about choosing wise policies.
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Book Links (Aff Links)
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life — https://amzn.to/38sIPRD
The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth — https://amzn.to/3epFuqj
The Hanson-Yudkowsky AI-Foom Debate — https://amzn.to/3cd4Che
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00:00 — Prof Robin Hanson
09:33 — Our conscious mind, subliminal justification of our actions and our evolution from ancestors
13:32 — We are designed not to understand our true motives for our actions
16:15 — Why do people laugh?
26:45 — Status moves. How we dominate interaction with other people.
32:34 — A simple conversation, isn’t just a simple conversation
42:05 — Social violations & ‘faking it’
47:33 — Signalling & showing off
54:42 — Medicine doesn’t really make us healthier
01:09:43 — Why politics is never about adopting better policy
Read The Transcription
Scott: thanks again for joining us today. I am sitting down with Robin Hanson, who is an associate professor of economics at George Mason university and a research associate at the future of humanity Institute of Oxford university. He has a doctorate in social science master’s degree in physics and philosophy and nine, or probably more.
When I pulled this bio a significant amount of years of experience as a research program or an artificial intelligence. And Basie and statistics with over 31, a hundred citations and 60 academic publications. He’s recognized not only for his contributions to economics, especially pioneering theory and use of prediction markets, but also for the wide range of fields in which he’s been published.
He’s the author of the age of em, work, love and life when robots rule the earth, as well as several other pieces. But most importantly, the piece that he released December of 2017 the elephant in the brain. Hidden motives in everyday life. Thank you so much for joining me. You have an incredible resume.
You speak on so many topics when you asked me what to talk about. I didn’t know, because you’ve done a lot over your career, so I really, really appreciate it. Thanks so much.
Robin: I’m looking forward to a conversation
Scott: now. Likewise. So let’s, let’s tee up for listeners who don’t know your works, don’t know your origin story.
Walk through your life a little bit. How did you get to where you’re at right now?
Robin: Well I’ve always had intellectual ambitions from like high school or college on but I wasn’t very good at focusing. And so I was study a topic for a while and then. Decide, I’ve seen sort of the key powerful topics in it.
And look at another topic loss, flea up from a distance and say, look at all the interesting things over there. And so I moved from subject to subject as I sort of ran out of interest, the most interesting things I’ve learned about in each subject and thought more important things off on the next subject.
And so I did that several times with our started engineering and went to physics, then went to philosophy of science. Then we went to artificial artificial intelligence and went to Beijing statistics and finally went to a social science. And. And more specifically than political science and economics.
And I’ve managed to sort of do a little bit of economics over that since then. So I’m luckily a professor of economics, but I still do a pretty wide range of things, but I almost really didn’t get tenure because I was doing two wide range of things. I managed to focus just enough and had a lucky break so that I could get tenure.
And then after tenure, I’ve allowed myself to do a wide range of things. So the world doesn’t reward that sense of breadth that might be admirable or impressive, but academia and other parts of the world just wants you to focus and be the world’s best at some particular thing, even though most amateur intellectuals want to spread widely.
And in some sense, that’s one of the main failure modes of people who don’t become professional intellectuals is they fail to focus enough.
Scott: And yet you’ve managed to become a professional intellectual while simultaneously failing to focus on multiple topics.
Robin: So I squeaked by the edge and got lucky that I, you know, I, you, you, you, you can’t expect to get the same results if you try it because like a lot, no,
Scott: I, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t even I don’t have the courage to try to try and tackle some of the topics that you’ve, you’ve written books on.
Let alone even really have a, an affluent understanding of, so what, yeah. Think
Robin: that, and I think that’s just that, that is, I wish everybody would just take on the biggest, most important topics, regardless of their ability, you know, they’re important, like, you know, there’s this whole question people are often asked, you know, what’s the most important stuff going on in your field.
And of course the follow-up question is why aren’t you working on it? And many people really, most people honestly admit that they’re not working on the most important stuff. Because you know, they’re working on the stuff that they haven’t personal advantage in, or they’ve stumbled into. I mean, the world just rewards certain topics.
And those are obviously the most important topics. And so people go where the rewards are rather than what’s important.
Scott: I’m sure there’s an ongoing too. I’m going to just coat this entire interview with layman’s terms. So I apologize, but I’m prefacing with that because I know that I’m not going to have the insight or the depth, but I actually, I want to go into why people gravitate towards certain topics, certain mindsets.
I think that’s a really good topic that we can sort of explore. But before I really just jump into the meat of this, what I’m curious, your upbringing, your, your family What prompted this curiosity with the world that allowed you to be this way? Or is it just inherent? It’s just something that you felt your entire life.
Robin: I mean, it’s inherent, but I think it’s inherent in a lot of people. It more get beaten out of people and the world failed to beat it out of me. And so the more you ask why I’m different, why the world failed to beat it out of me. And I think it was in part my arrogance that I was doing well in school.
And I thought because I was doing well that I could therefore do what I wanted rather than what everybody else was rewarding. As I thought I could get away with it seeing as I was doing so well.
Scott: So let’s, so let’s speak about, let’s speak about you know, we can speak about the elephant in the brain.
So let’s speak about what humans are rewarded for doing what they’re enthusiastic about doing and perhaps even biases in what they understand to be real. All these different topics that I think are covered, but a lot of people aren’t aware of their own brain, how they think, how they come to assumptions, how they make decisions about what they do, all these things.
Robin: for me, the key context is I spent many years, decades really learning and becoming a social scientist. And over those years in each different topic area, we have a certain way. We think about the subject and analyze it. And I didn’t realize that most of the ways we analyze subjects like schools or politics or medicine, or even conversation, we’re taking most people at their word for why they do it.
It’s a very natural thing to do because it’s what we would say. It’s what other people say. And so most social sciences simply take people at their word that say politics is about helping the world. And education is about learning the material and medicines about getting healthy. And it feels so natural and obvious that we just accept that.
And then we build on that. We, we take that basic assumption and we overlay other data and other theoretical assumptions and try to build up a superstructure of explanations for what goes on there. And the key thing to notice is that a lot of those don’t work very well. We find surprising puzzles and disconnects in big areas of life, where the simple predictions we’ve made based on the story of what people say they want and need to these areas don’t really fit very well.
What’s actually happening there. And so but the insight that I think other people in history have known were not original, but that’s being neglected now is this idea that if you would just go back and change the basic assumption about what something is for, you can explain it. A lot of these puzzles much better. A lot of things make sense in light of that with only will simply.
Satisfies your conception about what something is for what you think is for and asked? Well, what could it really be for
Scott: to, to back up the initial, the initial I guess story as as to why, you know, politics want to do good for the people education in a certain way, all these different stories that were told.
And then we just accept, explain to me from a, I guess from an organizational point of view, or perhaps a psychological point of view, why are these, the stories that I guess the, the higher ups or the, the people that want to portray a certain narrative feel that they need to teach us? Why can the complexities not be understood by the average person?
Robin: it, isn’t natural to presume there’s some authorities pushing this, but this really isn’t about authorities pushing. This is us naturally presuming and yeah. Our ancestors for the last hundred thousand years doing similar things. These are just all natural ways. All humans have always tried to portray themselves.
And so, I mean, there’s this puzzle we can get into. Why would people be wrong about what they do and why they do things? But the story here is that we are all wrong and we’ve all been consistently wrong for pretty much the same reasons for a very long time. And it’s not authorities pushing it or some new cultural change.
It’s just human nature to be wrong about these things.
Scott: And is that, is that a, is that an evolutionary or a safety mechanism that prompts us to be wrong? So, so the key
Robin: idea is we are wrong because it’s in our interest to be wrong because we want to project a good image or a safe image to the people around us and these wrong motive, descriptions are safer and nicer looking.
So that’s the key point. You, your conscious mind likes to think that if a self, as the King of the president of your mind, it’s running things, it’s the CEO handing out directions and listening to feedback. It’s not, it’s better to think of it as the press secretary, your conscious mind, doesn’t actually run things and decide what to do so much as it justifies them as it explains them.
So what your conscious mind is in charge of is telling about yourself to other people and justifying yourself to other people and defending yourself to other people, if they were to accuse you of things. So in that role, your conscious mind, isn’t just to know what you actually do and why your conscious mind’s job is to come up with a good explanation for what you’ve done so that you look good to the people around you.
So that’s like, say the president’s press secretary, the president’s press secretary doesn’t actually know what the president did or why, but when asked the question, their job is to come up with the best sounding explanation. To make it sound like it was okay or even good, whatever was up. And that’s your mind.
So the key thing to understand is for your distant ancestors, they lived in a very social world where there were these norms rules about what you were supposed to do or not supposed to do. And that was really important not to get on the wrong side of these norms. That is if somebody could credibly accuse you of violating a rule that would a lot of trouble for you.
And if you could credibly accuse a rival about what a right violating a rule, that was, that was great because then you could get rid of a rival. So your mind is all about all over trying to make sure that you’re on the right side of all these rules and that’s what your conscious mind is looking for.
So a key point is a lot of our norms are connected to the motive. So for example, if I hit you and I meant to hit you, I’m in trouble. I’m not supposed to just hit you. That violates an arm. If I accidentally hit you well, that can be quite okay. As long as I apologize and try to make up for it. I haven’t violated a wrong norm for accidentally hit me unless I sort of was extremely negligent in what I went about the issue.
Right? So you can see the norm is important right there. So if I hit you and somebody says, Hey, you hit them. My conscious mind’s job is to competent story about how that was accidental, how I shouldn’t be blamed for it because it’s not my fault. And so that’s an example of your conscious mind, trying to come up with good looking motives, safe motives, protected motives, rather than accurate about us to know what you actually did.
And that applies to all of the rest of your life. Your life is full of things you do, and full of motives. You attribute an excuse to explain those things. And the main claim of our book is that you’re just wrong. A lot about quiet, please
consistently about why we do a lot of things. And that messes up social science, including economics, which was my field where you’re just. Confused about how to explain social behavior and how to do good policy. If we don’t know the basic reasons why people are doing things.
Scott: So under understanding that understanding that we, we are wrong a lot in the actions that we take or the presumptions that th that internalized, how is it even possible to model modeled different outputs or different ideas.
If the, if the, the test group is, is flawed, how do we ever predict anything? How do we ever improve anything?
Robin: Well, so your designed not to see your real motives, you’re designed to see the motives you want to say. So if you just try to look at yourself and try to see your real motives, that’s not going to go very well.
And your subconscious is ready to divert you from that. What you’ll have more successful doing is looking at just humans in general. Looking at their average behavior and trying to come up with average, typical motives to explain average, typical behavior, your concept conscious mind is not very well set up to defend against that.
It doesn’t care so much against that as long as it’s not directed at you. So what we do in our book is to go through 10 different areas of life. And in each area we say what’s the usual stated motive. And then what are a bunch of things that don’t make sense that don’t fit very well with that story, and then offer an alternative motive that fits better with a bunch of the puzzles that we described.
And that’s our method of analysis to say, here’s a motive that makes more sense of these various puzzles. And most of these puzzles might not even be things you have noticed, or if you noticed thought were very interesting or important. And so usually they didn’t interfere with your usual story about what’s your motive was now after hearing about this podcast or reading our book, you will be more.
In a tougher situation, pretending to have use a load. So we’ll have to warn you right up front. We’re going to interfere with your ability to pretend to have these real motives. So that might put you at a disadvantage in the usual evolutionary faking of games, because usually your subconscious mind just does a great job of pretending to have a certain motive and getting away with making you think that’s plausible because you haven’t noticed these contradictions.
So sorry about that. No,
Scott: no, no.
Robin: Well, I mean, it’s serious not I read why learn this stuff because it might not be in your insist and other stuff. So we do think, say social scientists and policymakers have more of an interest and perhaps even an obligation to learn this stuff, but ordinary people may not really want to know.
It might not be in their interest to know what would,
Scott: so let’s, let’s again, let’s bring it down to layman’s terms when you start to understand. So the, the 10 areas that you cover, body language, laughter conversation consumption, art, charity, education, medicine, religion, politics. Those are the 10 areas that you touch on in the book, correct.
Just wanna make sure
Robin: yes, those are them. And we could have done another 10 or 20 areas heavily. I have a longer book, but these are the ones we chose. We made. This is enough to make the point clear. There’s a lot of hidden moments in your life.
Scott: So walk, walk me through when somebody does understand something like that.
Let’s let’s pick an example, whatever one is, is top of mind for you, what would, what would be brought to light when somebody understands hidden motives in any of these topics? Perhaps politics is, is too easy for most people. I don’t know if they,
Robin: well, it started early MLS, so, and then little things later in the list are somewhat often harder to swallow because people have more passionate about them, but let’s start right out with say a laughter.
Okay. One of the earliest chapters, so you laugh. Other people laugh. We are all laugh a lot. And if you ask, why do people laugh? What are we laughing? You might say, because it was funny. If you think about it, it’s not much of an explanation. And you might say, well, you look at the literature and say, well, what are the theories people have?
And they say, well, it’s incongruent. Or it was a sort of benign violation or other sorts of things like that. And these work a little bit, but not that well. And so the first order of business is to collect these puzzles. What are they sort of. Features and data points that we know about laughter, especially ones that are puzzling.
Well, one thing that’s puzzling is that speakers laugh more than listeners and people laugh a lot more when it’s social than when it’s a social enormous range of times more. And we laugh about a lot of things that would be actually pretty embarrassing to say straight out loud without laughing.
So for example, we might laugh at the joke. Don’t drop the soap in the prison shower. Aha. Now, if you think about it is literally laughing at prison rates, which in most people’s conscious mind, isn’t the sort of thing you should be making a lot of fun of because it says terribly serious sad things. So why would we laugh at that joke?
Our standard theory that we’re just taking from literature is that laughter is a place. Yeah, you do many things for real. And then you also do things in play. So children and play in small animals will play refined, play, right? Run, play, chase, play climb, and then play modes. They don’t quite do the real thing.
They don’t have the claws out for example, but they’ll try to go through the motions in order to practice. What they would need to do that are for real humans are very social. So we do a lot of play. A lot of our play is socials. And since we have these norms and they’re very important, a lot of our plays centers around violating norms or not violating norms or enforcing them or not.
So laughter among humans is often about doing something that would seem to violate a norm. Fuck doesn’t really, you heard us. And so the key thing is that when we’re playing, the thing that can go wrong is that somebody actually gets hurt. So even when the small animals are play-fighting, one of them might actually get bit.
One of them might start bleeding and at that moment they need to stop playing. So playing animal, then humans all need to be watching out for whether anybody’s really getting hurt and checking to see whether we’re still playing. And so they need a way to say, Oh, stop. We need to stop playing well and also, and say, we’re fine.
Let’s keep playing. And laughter is basically, we’re still playing signal. You are doing something that looks like it might hurt, but it doesn’t hurt. And you’re saying it doesn’t hurt. And so similarly in the prison sour joke, not you on the other person are not in prison. You’re not in the prison shower.
You don’t know anybody in prison. It doesn’t threaten you personally. You feel safe. So even though you’re protecting your. Acting like you’re violating this norm. You’re not actually getting hurt and you nobody around you expect to get hurt. Nobody expects to get called on for this violation of a norm.
And so you’re safe. And so we were doing this all the time with laughter. We are playing violating norms, going up to the edge of things and checking that we all feel safe. We’re okay. And it feels very good because it bonds you to people you realize, well, they could call me on this and they could, you know, rat rat me out and report me for this violation.
But they won’t because they’re my associates, then we’re all having good fun here.
Scott: See, I was, I was just reading a point that you mentioned as well about LA is also in line with laughter. You mentioned that babies laugh more with their mothers. How does that, and I’m just curious as to why you indicated that piece in particular.
Robin: Well, I was probably just listing a lot of little correlates that we know of. I mean, but the key point there is you know, it’s a signal of feeling comfortable. And so you do it with people that you are comfortable with. And so for example, people often say I fell in love with him or her because we laughed or he, he or she made me laugh.
Right. Well, what does that saying? It’s saying you’re all in love with somebody who you are comfortable with, right? Who, who you can violate norms, who you can break rules or pretend to break rules, and they will be okay with that and they will protect you and they will not, you know, you can do play fighting with them and they won’t really hurt you now.
Scott: Now the, when you, when you engage with that and you start to laugh, does it mean that you’re coming from a place of feeling uncomfortable and then the laugh brings that brings you together or, or allows you to feel psychological. And it
Robin: has to be a plausible violation that might hurt you. Right? It’s it’s not, it has to have a bit of a tooth.
So, you know, you can see this from standup comics or something. If they, if their jokes are all about cereal boxes or putting on socks, it wouldn’t have much of an edge, they call it. Yeah. And so it wouldn’t be as funny. Right? So they have to go to an edge where there seems to be some risk of somebody getting hurt.
Otherwise it’s not edgy. And then it’s not funny. It’s funny. It’s reassuringly funny when you go to that edge and then you say, aha, I’m still safe. I mean, of course it’s like even being on an amusement park ride, right. You go on a roller coaster or something else like that. What’s the fun it’s because it feels dangerous, but you’re not hurt.
If you actually got hurt on the roller coaster was that wouldn’t be fun anymore. No fun. Right. But if you just sat on a park bench, that’s not fun either. You have to go up to the edge of danger, but not go past the edge of danger. And then it’s fun. Similarly for humor and enjoying comics, we have to go to the edge of seeing that we in fact could have been heard and see that we aren’t.
And then we are knowing that the other persons have our back, that they’re protecting us. We are safe with them because they could have heard us.
Scott: I’m also curious about your point on conversation and I don’t mean to just go through the entire I’ve
Robin: got the title.
Scott: I, I was reading a segment on the piece of conversation about how conversation does not usually involve the exchange of useful information.
Brian, it’s more meant to show off our mental ability, which I thought was interesting is see an hour laughing cause it’s uncomfortable or maybe it is comfortable. We’re trying to make it comfortable, but it’s, it’s an awkward topic. It’s not a fun thing to do. We are now
Robin: vulnerable because this topic is applicable to what we’re doing right now.
And so we’re vulnerable to the accusation that we are showing off right now, which is a no-no you’re not supposed to show off. And so we laugh because we are somewhat confident that we each won’t actually attack the other person on this ground. We feel safe enough there, but we feel enough at risk. So as to make it funny, I like
Scott: that now, now, now laughter.
I can, I can see how that could be an eye-opener for someone, but I don’t think that’s going to, you know, re change their entire world, whereas conversation. Right. Conversation is something we do every single day. Right? You laugh with
Robin: someone. Yeah. So that structure or a book is first. The first third, we try to make it plausible that people gonna have it in motives.
And we actually have some examples of the animals and other things with humans. And we just try to make it really plausible that in general, people could not know about their minds. And then we have some relatively easy softballs chapters where we have descriptions of hidden motives, that people will mostly be able to access body language laughter and things like that.
And then we sort of move up the scale, the things that people will get more upset about and be more resistant to concluding that their motives aren’t what they think they are. And by that time, hopefully we’ve convinced you look, there’s a lot of hidden motives. It’s plausible. There could be a lot of here and you might, that might not be enough to convince you that there is in fact one, but it means it’s not crazy.
And so that’s sort of the structure here is it’s the first to tell you, it’s not crazy to have it in mode. It’s not crazy to believe people do not know why they do things and we can go through some of those other examples if you want. And then we’re moving to is things are sensitive. So out of these 10 chapters, most people will have like an area that’s more sacred for them and they will be resistant to believing hidden motives and their sacred area.
But in the other areas, they’ll be fine with that. So for example, if you’re really into art, you’ll find it hard to accept our story on art. If you’re not as RD or a STEM grad or something, you’ll find it quite easily to accept that those artists have hidden motives because that’s not you, same word for religion or politics.
You know, if that’s central to your life, you will find it harder to buy our star.
Scott: Now, the question I have that sort of permeates all of these is if somebody is very self-aware and they do want to truly understand hidden motives, even in the topics that they hold. So dear, and they’re so passionate about.
How do they, is this, I don’t know if it needs the answer. How do they open up their mind? A little bit to understand things that run contradictory to,
Robin: as I said, the key idea is to not think about yourself,
Scott: that’s true.
Robin: Just focus on other people and ask on average humans out there, what are they doing when they’re doing politics or religion or art or something, and, you know, talk about people far away from yourself, people in history, people in other cultures, and try to come up with a story that fits the pattern of what they’ve been doing.
And then if you have to think about yourself, just assume you’re like them.
Scott: Let’s let’s figure. Okay. So I want to, I want us to be a conversation, but give me one, give me one body language example. So we just touch on that one briefly before we keep going to the more sinister topics as we, as we move down the list.
Robin: I say to people like us talking together in person, I’m not sure how we’ll translate online. When we do what are called status moves, we synchronize our eyes and our gate and who talks and who interrupts in ways where we basically agree on our relative status. And it’s usually not evil, someone’s higher status and someone’s lower status.
And the lower status person has basically agreed to that relationship by accepting the interruptions or accepting that they follow the gate, et cetera, of the other person. And that makes sense, except it’s not at all. It’s something people are aware of and they reasonably deny it. If you pointed out that is most people, when they’re talking to say a close friend or associates, they will say they are equal.
And that there is no one higher status. And therefore they couldn’t be doing these status moves whereby they’re accepting one person has higher status than the other, but in fact, they are.
Scott: Is there a way to take that position,
Robin: take it that you are
Scott: equal while you, I mean, no, no, no. Sorry. No two is, is there any benefit rather to having a higher status position?
And if there is, how would you, well, of course, I
Robin: mean, social status is very important to humans and in general, people would like to be higher status, but people also like to agree on their relative status. And if you are in fact lower status than someone who has higher status than you, it’s often valuable to you to create a positive relationship with them whereby their higher status reflects well on you because a higher status person names to interact with you and seems to respect you.
So you know, unless you want to fight them for higher status. So sometimes when people are interacting in conversation, it looks visibly awkward because they have not agreed on a relevant status and they are fighting over that higher status. And that happens sometimes, but somewhat rare. But that shows you that what happens when you are not agreeing on relevant status, it’s not smooth.
It’s not natural. Very
Scott: interesting. Very interesting. I, the only reason I brought it up is because I’ve, I’ve interviewed a few other sales individuals that, that walk through the psychology of selling and the status and the framing of status is important in that aspect as well. And that’s sort of a business context, but I just thought,
Robin: Oh, sure.
I’m sure it is. I mean, sure. And it’s not us, it’s just important in lots of contexts, but you have to be careful that some people have this idea that because that is important and being higher status is there is on general. Good that you should just always act high status and that’s just not true. You, you, you, you want to, you know, find a way that you can agree on some relative status and that may well have you below your status, but that could still be better than fighting over the status.
Because we often want to have a productive relationships with people who are higher status with us. They might be, for example, in sales that you want, the person you’re selling to, to. I feel like they are higher status than you, that might be the way to sell, or it might be that you want to be higher status.
It could depend on the product or service you’re selling. And you should understand that. I know that I might just tell him to the individual, not so much the product, if you’re selling to a high status individual, it might be important that you acknowledge their status. And part of your relationship, if you are fighting for status over them, they say, well, why should I buy a product from you or listen to you if you’re going to be fighting unreasonably for status.
I mean, clearly you’re lower status than me. Why not just acknowledge it and we’ll continue on with the discussion.
Scott: Now let’s so I appreciate that. So let’s move to, let’s move to conversation. So we’re, we’re, we’re chatting. Apparently we’re not exchanging much useful information I would argue, I think, cause I think you are changing a lot, but
Robin: well, there’s about, it’s less about useful.
I mean, it’s more about the word useful and less about the word information. So clearly when people are talking. It’s information, right? I mean, they could just babble and it would be different, right? The, the wishing feature conversation, this is not baffled. The particular symbols have a thicker sequence and they correspond to some meaning.
So there is information there. The question is, what’s it about what’s it for? So if you ask now, sometimes people are talking for very concrete, useful purposes. You call up an order, a pizza, you know, you knock on a door and ask if they’ve seen your cat. I mean, you know, it’s pretty clear that in those contexts, there is concrete, useful information being exchanged, but we also have this common mode.
And in fact, most of our words are probably in this alternative mode of just talking conversations. And the question is, what are we doing there? Because if you look at ordinary conversations, you’ll notice a number of striking features. One as we talk about pretty trivial things, we don’t talk about our most important and topics.
We. Are more eager to talk than we are to listen, which goes against this idea that we’re sort of trading information, because if we were trading information, I’d want to listen, be quiet a lot and get a lot of information from you rather than giving away a lot. And we don’t seem to keep track of debts.
Like I’ve told you three useful things. It’s your turn to tell me some useful things. And we have a strange norm of not even sticking to conversation topics very long. We’re supposed to bounce around from topic to topic. And you know, not really being able to predict where the conversation goes, somebody who’s too directly trying to control the conversation topic.
Well, that’s just the more, so what explains these strange features of conversation? Again, they’re not very consistent with the the simple theory that.
Also start the officer cut that out, going off.
Scott: Listen, I’ve had, I’ve had kids jump in. I’ve had dogs jump in like, listen, a phone is not the end of the woods is the new world. This is what we do.
Robin: All right. All right. So as I was saying where were, where was I
Scott: about exchanging?
Robin: So the simple theory of conversation is that it’s about exchanging information.
That would be the theory we would most often offer. If we say, why are you talking to someone? And that’s a plausible theory. I know things you don’t, you know, things I don’t, we can trade and we both end up knowing more, but it just doesn’t fit the details of conversation very well. And the alternative theory we offer, which again, isn’t that original is that we’re showing off in conversation.
So the idea is I have a backpack of tools and resources. So do you. And we’re both going to play this game where the conversation goes to random places and wherever it goes, each of our job is to pick out something from our backpack that’s relevant. And the more I can have that task of having interesting, relevant, useful things to say about whatever topic shows up, the more I must have a pretty good backpack.
And if you were to be my associate, then you would have access to that. Anytime you wanted to know something about something, you turn to me and ask, and I could pull something out of the backpack and help you out. And the idea is we are playing this conversation game where we’re just supposed to show off our tools and resources on whatever comes up.
And so we’re not supposed to talk about the most important things to us, and we’re not immune supposed to be able to predict where the conversation goes. We’re just supposed to be able to show off whatever comes up.
Scott: Now, do you feel when that, cause I, I, that resonates with me immensely because when I’m doing these particularly these podcasts, and I’m speaking to all these different experts in their own field, All that’s running through my mind is what the hell am I going to say?
That is even remotely intelligent when they start going off about, you know, whatever your specific industry is, or niche or whatnot that they’ve been doing for the past 30, 40 years. And that’s, that’s my job. So I’m always thinking like, what do I take out of my backpack? But is that something that you feel is even necessary to add to a conversation?
Or do you feel it’s mostly just in your own head?
Robin: Well, we are mostly when we are listening, thinking about what we’re going to say next. Yeah. I mean, you guys, we are more focused on our talking than other people, you know, listening to other people. And that’s just, it’s more about us showing off and about getting information from other people.
But of course the people around us, this is a conversation beyond too. They want to see us show off too. They want to see all the people showing off. And so if somebody just sits there and never says anything, that’s a bit awkward because. We can’t judge them and we don’t know, you know, how good they are and whether they deserve to be in the conversation.
So everybody should be sticking in sometimes even if they’re not much useful to say, because it’s not about useful things to say it’s about coming to this judgment about our relative abilities. And hopefully one after we agree on relative abilities, we’ll, we’ll agree enough that we like to be with each other.
I mean, that’s sort of the key message. When I’m talking to you, the better messages you are worth talking to you are worth being with. And you know, after the conversation, we all would like that message to continue. At least for ourselves and for the other people we want to judge, are they worth keeping around?
Should they be in future conversations? Should we not invite them? Do they have enough stuff in their backpack?
Scott: Now? I understand when we were speaking and we were talking about, well, there’s, there’s a little bit of, of negative in the book. I get it because. It’s it’s difficult to hear this because you don’t want it to be true.
You don’t, you don’t want to, you don’t want to admit to the fact that, for example, you’re trying to peacock in the conversation so that you have something intelligent to say. But it’s almost like you can’t escape. The construct that society fits you into, right? You can’t escape. You can’t escape. What that norm is, which is a little bit sad because you’re right.
When you say something smart, I want to say something smart and people, listen, they want to hear you, but they also want to hear me. And that’s not a fun thing to always have on top of mind,
Robin: it’s kind of fun to be winning and doing it well, but it’s still not fun to admit that that’s what you’re doing because of the Kinara.
So part of this understanding all of this is understand sort of key human norms. If the norms were different, your attitudes behavior with different. And so one thing to understand is humans have this norm against showing off. Now, that’s actually kind of hard to believe if you look at what he was doing all the time, because they’re showing off all the time and it’s done pretty transparently, but it’s still done a little bit under the surface.
You know, somebody goes on vacation and they come back and told you all the wonderful things. They saw this still on the surface, pretending that they just had a good time and they want to share that with you. Of course, we all know they’re showing off about where they went on the vacation and you know, what they were able to afford and what they were able to do.
But we don’t call them on that usually. And all through other sorts of conversations we have, we know people are showing up in all other areas of life. I mean, people get a degree. They’re using it to show off. They have a nice car and nice house, nice clothes. They weren’t exercising. I mean, they were doing lots of things to show off, but nevertheless, we have this norm that you’re not supposed to admit to directly doing things to show off.
You’re always supposed to be having some other motive. You like to play sports, you love the thrill of activity. No, you’re not trying to be healthy or impressive. That’s a side effect that you don’t mind, but it’s not your purpose for doing it. Why,
Scott: why is that? Why I have no idea why I, everything you’re saying is a hundred percent correct.
And it all makes sense. And you think about all those use cases you just mentioned, but why do people have an issue showing off? Why?
Robin: So, so to understand sort of our core human knowns, you have to know what foragers lives were like. So we can think of the arrows of humans as three areas. There were foragers farmers and industry where in the industrial era, before us were farmers, but before farmers were foragers, farmers stay in one place and they plow the land and they, you know, work hard and things like that.
But foragers wandered the wilderness, the jungle, the forest, and they didn’t stay in one place that long. They moved one place to another, which is why they’re called foragers. They live in small groups of say 30 to 50. These groups would run out of food in one place, which is why he moved to another place because they wandered a lot.
They really didn’t have much physical materials. They had to have very light things to carry with them. They didn’t own property. They didn’t own material that didn’t even own spouses. Marriage was, was relatively relationships, relatively short term. And they were fiercely egalitarian say, compared to say chimpanzees or other sorts of primates, humans have a strong rule that nobody was supposed to give orders.
Nobody was supposed to act like they were better. Nobody was supposed to threaten other people with physical harm unless you did what they have. You weren’t supposed to dominate. You were just supposed to have this big Galatarian evil, at least outside of the family groups. And there were so fiercely the Alterian that they were wary of any indication that anybody acted like they were better or stronger and more deserving.
So for example, once they have bows and arrows, they often have the habit of. They would, before they went on a hunt, they would exchange arrows and then whoever arrow hit the animal could come back and deliver the, deliver the meat. But it wasn’t going to be the arrow of the person who shot it because they just exchanged arrows before they went out.
And so that was so they wouldn’t brag about it. I was the one who brought back to me because I was a better Hunter. And so you’re not supposed to brag about being that better. Hunter. You’re not supposed to brag about anything. You’re certainly not supposed to implicitly threaten people that if they don’t do it your way, that you will hurt them or, you know, do something against them.
And so this sort of created this norm against Brian, because bragging is sort of one step before dominance. If you say I could beat anyone of you in a fight, that’s explicitly saying, so if you don’t do what I say, I’m going to fight you and I’m going to win. And so Schumann had this strong norm against bragging for that reason.
We have some norms for sharing in various ways and a lot of sort of ancient human norms of safe humor norms had that ancient foragers had this norm that if we made a big decision, like moving. To a new place when we’re foraging or say punishing was on, we would all have a discussion that everybody could have their say and nobody would be seen as dominant in that discussion.
Nobody would take the attitude. Well, you’re going to do what I say, because I’m the most strongest guy here or the most pro pocket. We would all appear to have our say. And then what would have typically happen is the most prestigious person would wait and be quiet and then more near the end say something like, well, what I hear people saying is, which is of course the standard management technique even today, and other people would then access their summary because they were in fact stronger.
So of course, another thing about humans is they are not equal, but they are not equal to prestige. And it’s okay to treat someone as higher prestige, but not as higher dominance. So we, we see how we treat people with prestigious and how we do. I, so someone who’s dominant, you supposed to look away, but if somebody who’s prestigious, you can look at them.
And so it’s okay to be admired and people want to be like you and people want to see what you’re doing so they can copy you. It’s just not okay to be threatening possibly with force. And so these are some of the common human norms. And so understanding these common human norms helps you understand why people are hiding their motives so that they can seem to be following these norms.
They seem to be galitary and they seem to be not bragging. They seem to be sharing, seem to be listening to other people,
Scott: even though that’s clearly not the case. That’s why they, that’s why they try and mask.
Robin: All right. And at some level we kind of know that they’re faking it. Yeah. And so there’s this interesting question about when there are norm violations, when do we feel compelled to act?
And so what we actually have to do is just hide the violation enough that other people don’t call us on it. We don’t actually have to hide it enough that they don’t see it, but we do see that people are bragging all the time. But we don’t call them on it. That’s the key point. So the question is when do people call each other on their violations?
So an example we discussed in the book is in say the United States and many other places, there’s this rule against drinking alcohol in public, like walking the street and drinking alcohol police know about this rule and they’re supposed to enforce it, but they don’t want to not in their eyes, a high priority rule.
So they’d rather ignore it if they can. But if they see you visibly with the alcohol bottle in public, they kind of have to do something cause that’s their job. So they’re developed this norm that if you put the alcohol bottle in a paper bag and the bag covered the bottle and you were drinking out of a bottle, in a bag in public that we couldn’t see what the bottle was then that was okay.
Now the vast majority of the time anybody is drinking out of a paper bag in a bottle in public, it’s going to be alcohol. Nobody’s stupid, but it gives you the excuse to not call them on it. And that’s how we act in a lot of our social behaviors and North, we actually often see people out in arms, or we’re not stupid, but we don’t have to call them on it if we’ve got this excuse.
And so, for example, we often see people flirting, as you know, like a lot of flirtation is not invalidating arts. There’s a lot of people, people are not supposed to be forwarding with right. Yet they do there’s is a lot of 30 in actual practice. So how does that happen? You might think, well, they’re, floatings flirting so subtly that no one else can see, but the target of flirtation that’s done true.
Scott: can notice
Robin: them. See maybe, you know, 14 year olds can’t tell the difference or something, or even college students who aren’t very experienced can tell that they’re going to spend most adults can tell who’s flirting with who, but as long as you have followable deniability, they won’t call you on it.
Unless, of course they want to call you on it. And so norm, you know, violations and calling is a combination of giving people an excuse, not to call you, but also giving people a reason not to call you. So, you know, as we even today see with cancel culture, for example, but a lot of people do things that would violate cancel culture is rules, but don’t get, don’t get called on it.
And then some people do. And because in part, no, that’s the ones they want to choose to call them. And so that’s, you know, again, what we’re trying to do with our hidden motives is to give friendly people an excuse and to protect ourselves from unfriendly people so that they you know, aren’t able to more maliciously call us on normal.
Which of course, many of us are always are always doing. Mike’s like speeding. Right? Most people are speeding most of the time on the road. Most people don’t get pulled over for speeding tickets. And so if you feel very unsafe, you’ll have to stay below the speed limit. If you don’t, if you feel someone safe, then you’ll go over the speed, limit them, not so much as to give someone an excuse to call you.
Scott: Is there a psychological threshold that has to be passed before somebody feels the need to cancel you, call you point out you violating these norms?
Robin: Well, I mean, they will more fundamentally, they need to have a coalition will support them, right? And so it’s less about whether they can see the violation then whether if they call on it, whether they will get support.
And so what we often see for example, is small groups, bond by violating larger norms, but by seeing that they each other and let each other get away with it. So even like within a company, you might have a set of managers who. Socialize together. And then those things, they might be more Frank than admit some, you know, things they wouldn’t want to say in a larger group.
And the fact that they say those things privately bond them together more strongly because each of the other person who heard it could quote them to other people and hurt them with those quotes. But if they feel confident, they won’t. Then the fact that they’re opening it up is showing a connection and showing that you are trusting and makes them better able to bond with each other.
And so, you know, that’s also part of their human norm violation stories is that we try to avoid looking like we’re violating norms in general, but often under intimate connections, we go out of our way to violate norms, just so that we can show each other that we trust each other. And that’s part of the laughter you know, game is that playfully violate norms in a safe space where we feel like we won’t be calling.
Scott: And this is all, is this, is this what. Is this what signal it? Sorry. I’m thinking ahead of myself. I was, I was thinking of violating norms to garner acceptance. The next point you have in the book is consumption purchasing things that may not be for practical use. And we can sort of touch on that briefly, but you, you really already did, but is this all like, is this what signaling is?
Robin: So signaling is just a fancy, heavy word for showing off. And so the question is what are you showing off? Not showing off only works when you show something that indicates something else, like you win the foot race, and that shows that you are strong and healthy or you use big words. And that shows that, you know, a lot of big words, right?
And so we are showing off a lot and we don’t like to admit that. And so when we’re attributing motives to ourselves, we rarely use the showing off motive as the motive we attribute to ourselves. But we’re, it does influence a lot of what we do. But there are many kinds of things we do want to show off.
So it’s worth noticing how many things there are. So you might want to show off how smart you are. Rich. You are how healthy you are, how popular you are, how, how much, how many people know you, how well good connections you have. But you also want to show off loyalty. You want to show that you are loyal to other people and they are loyal to you.
And even though you might think showing loyalty is a more admirable thing than showing off smarts or wealth. People are more reluctant to admit that they are doing things to show loyalty in part, because some often they’re showing submissions through loyalty rather than dominance. They are showing that they are loyal to someone else.
And then of course, showing loyalty often shows differential Etsy. You show loyalty to one person relative to another. No, I’ve only got so many slots at the dinner party and right. You, then I’m showing loyalty to you relative to wherever else I could have invited. And we’re of course don’t want to publicize that fact to the other person.
We didn’t invite cautious about showing differential loyalty because the people we are showing left loyalty to our it’s a negative message, but we do spend a lot of time showing loyalty and a lot of effort. And that’s one of the main things that we signal or show off through the things we do. But again, if I ask you, why did you invite this person at the dinner party?
And not that person, you’ll probably not want to give it explicit loyalty reasons. Let’s say they don’t match better saleable at the time you thought of them first, you know, something like that.
Scott: And then that obviously carries quite obviously over into consumption of actual physical goods. So things that you, things that you purchased and why you’re purchasing them.
Robin: Right? So that’s one of the early chapters because we think most people really are quite ready to admit that other people live stuff to go off and do stuff to show off. So, I mean, it’s a part of our culture, this idea of conspicuous consumption and it’s true. And quite obvious, if you look at say people richer than you and all the stuff they buy, you ask yourself, do they need all that stuff?
No, no. Then why do they buy all that stuff long as I can show that they are more than I do make you look bad, which is in part true, but it’s also true to what you’re doing. And it’s not just showing that you’re rich, people show many things through their consumption purchases. You know, for example, we show them an example of an ad for a beer that all it does is it shows the picture of a beer on a beach.
And you think, well, how does that show it’s AP beer or cheek beer or safety or anything else? It’s not about the beer. It’s about this image that goes with the beer and you’d say, well, how does that sell the beer. Well, it’s, you know, this indirect process where once we associate the beer with the beach, now, other people will want to show that they are beach people and just wait there.
And so advertising and these products and services expand the language of things you can say about yourself. You know, how, how otherwise would you say I’m a beach person and you could end up sandals and swim trunks. The weather might not be conducive to that, but the weather might even do some to the beer.
And you know, so we, you can buy a Prius to show your environmental and you know, there’s just so many other options here. And this helps you understand why there’s a lot of ads for things you can’t afford that are shown to you. Why do you keep seeing Rolex ads? You’re not going to buy a Rolex. Well, you know what, the people who, a Rolex, what’s the point of you, aren’t jealous and how are you going to be jealous unless you seen their Alexa.
So you got to see the Rolex ad. So they buy the robots. And so when they wave it in your face, you are jealous.
Scott: Very interesting. I forgot that you had a background in marketing and you actually, that was, that was a large portion of your career as well. You were working, you were working on it. No,
That’s not me. I don’t have a background in marketing perhaps my co-op area guns, but no.
Scott: Oh no. I thought you had, I’m not, I’m not marketing in the traditional sense. Oh, how did I, I read it and I thought it was very interesting. Oh, sorry. Prediction markets. Excuse me. Now that’s not marketing.
I apologize. That was my, that was a completely off, completely off there. I thought I thought you were using like a data price to predict consumer
Robin: behavior, not economics. I feel that I respect in the sense that they know a lot of things we economists don’t know, and our economic tools are not very helpful at figuring out the things they know.
So it’s this sort of mysterious world where we have yet to make progress, to develop conceptual insights. That will make more sense of the things marketers know.
Scott: No, that that does, that does make a lot of sense. And I just, I just, when you mentioned that point about just about the ads and how they, and how they actually invoke this feeling to an individual, I thought the Rolex example is very interesting.
I find marketing to be incredibly incredibly interesting how smart some marketers are and what they can actually, the feelings and emotions. And, and also that you know, why you’re showing a Rolex that to somebody who’s never going to buy a Rolex. I, is that even, is that thought through, or is that just by accident by chance that the, this is the, the results, I’m
Robin: an academic and a professor.
So of course I focus on arguments that can be elaborated explicitly, and that are elaborated explicitly. As you know, most people in the world, aren’t academics, professors, they function in the world and they get things done, but they don’t reason about it as explicitly or as abstract. So you know, they, in some sense know implicitly how to do things, but they could, they are less able to give you an abstract reason walking, but, you know, that’s obviously not very necessary for the role of the function because of the mass majority of people can’t give you abstract reasons why they do things.
They just do things. It’s our job as an intellectual to try to make sense of what people do and to give an explanation for it. And of course, even to explain how it is that they can do things, even though they can’t explain them.
Scott: So those are, I guess, that I guess that sort of tees up the, the four introductory chapters, because after body language laughter conversation and consumption, then you go into some very specific like art education, charity medicine.
I would love to what, which one is your particular favorite that triggers the most amount of people.
Robin: Medicine tends to trigger the most amount of people in our society. So. In the United States in our era, we are especially respectful and even worshipful of medicine. It’s one of the sacred thing. The U S tells itself that it gave the world.
So the United States thinks it’s a great place. And part of why the United States says it’s a great place to itself is that we gave the world some really big things that are really valuable that nobody else gave them before we gave it to them. And one of those things is medicine. I mean, other things are, of course we got rid of communism and not say them.
And we gave the world civil rights and we have the world’s best schools or things like that. But it’s it’s medicine. That’s one of the most distinctive things we say we gave the world. And so, yeah, it’d be in part because of the United States is far beyond the average of the world in terms of how much respect we give medicine and how much resources we devote to it.
So. Our book is talking about trying to explain the average worldwide and in history, attitude towards medicine, lots, so much trying to explain why the U S is exceptional or different. And again, our book is first about just average, typical human beings, but in the United States today, because we give so much extra respect and attention to medicine, then it is more sensitive to people it’s sacred to many people, many people say, you know, my grandpa would have died if not for medicine or my father would have died is not for medicine then.
So, you know, medicine is just terribly valuable and terribly important. Well so they’re not, they’re going to have trouble hearing our message about medicines. So let’s say AFL, let’s do it. The usual story about medicine is pretty simple, pretty well-known. You can get sick it can hurt. It can kill you.
There are these experts called doctors and they can help they’re expensive. And they’re kind of hard to judge their quality. And so you need insurance to pay for it and maybe regulation to judge. Who’s good. But and you need to do what they say, even if it doesn’t make sense, because that’s the key to this powerful medicine thing.
And you know, the powerful thing that science gives you, which is why science is great. The United States gave the world, which is why the United States is great. And you know, things like that. That’s the story of medicine. Then of course the next step is going to be the puzzle. The things that don’t fit with this simple standard story about medicine and the biggest in your face thing, right from the beginning is that we see almost no correlation between health and medicine, which has got to sound like a crazy sounding claim.
So what that means is when some people in places get more medicine, those people in places are not healthier. Now you might think, Oh, well, of course. I won’t go to the doctor unless I was sick. So you’re going to see a negative correlation between health and medicine and that the people that are the doctor, they’re going to be sicker than average.
Right. Does that explain it? We’ll know, as we’re looking at a, taking a whole population of people who are all well and then saying, making some of them have more medicine and then tracking them over time to see whether over time they get sick and whether they get well, and whether they’re on average healthier.
And that’s where we don’t see the correlation. We don’t see this correlation, not just in geographic regions, like counties or hospital areas in the United States or even nations across the world. We don’t see it in randomized experiments. We’ve had a few of those, not so many where we take some people and we just give them more medicine by say, giving them a lower price for them say free.
So if you take some people and you say, you guys get free medicine, ta-da here you go. People in response, choose more medicines. They say, okay, I’ve got to set up an appointment that I’ll be there on Tuesday and they go get more medicine. And we track them over time and they’re not healthier. And that’s got to be a real popular if you believe the simple David story, that the reason we get medicine is to be healthy.
Scott: Can I, can I ask what, what the definition of healthy and what the definition of medicine is like, are we speaking like, like when you say healthy, it would make sense to me that somebody who you know, is clinically obese is not going to get healthier. If they get more you know, Benadryl or, you know, like, like I wanna understand like what that, what that definition means, the
Robin: simplest way to define medicine as medical spending.
I mean, obviously medicine is valid in a little different things, and we need a way to count among all of the different things. We can do it by mass of medicine. That doesn’t sound very good with. They do it by hours that you spend with them that might be better, but the, the, maybe the better economic measure would be spending.
How much are you spending on medicine? And the usual measure of health is living or dying. Now, people are also, even when they’re alive can be more or less healthy. And we measure that as well. But honestly, most variation in health is living or dying. So living or dying is a nice first cut. Although in some of the experiments, they weren’t big enough to really see much variation living or dying.
And then we have to use measures of functioning. Basically, we, we say, what can you do in your world life that you want to do with versus helping in your way. And so some standard measures of that. And so, you know, for, for health it’s either, are you dead or it’s, can you function?
Scott: That’s a good, good a good litmus test for health,
And for amount it’s mostly spending, although it can also be hours or number of doctor visits, second study, they’ve done that, but the consistent results of however you do that is basically not much correlation. That’s not the only puzzle. So another key principle here is people are often tempted to take one probable and then come up with an ad hoc explanation for it, and then go to the next possible and come up with a separate new ad hoc explanation for that.
That’s not a very disciplined approach. So our key discipline is to collect a bunch of puzzles all at once, and then look for explanations to size to explain them all together, or as many of them as possible together. That’s our main discipline. If we didn’t have that discipline, we really just couldn’t be making much progress here to explain anything because everything you can explain within that, how could explination probably explain that an app?
It doesn’t mean ad hoc explanation, but can you find an explanation that explains several puzzles at once? So that’s why you want to collect multiple puzzles before you try to explain. So what else do we find puzzling about medicine? Well, we see that people are surprisingly uninterested in information about the quality of medicine.
We’ve had situations where people are about to undergo heart surgery and where they face a few percent risk of dying. And we asked them, are you interested in knowing the track record of your surgeon or your hospital in terms of the surgery and whether they died and no, they’re not. You can give them the information and they don’t act on it.
That’s a puzzle. There’s also, we have lots of things that affect health, not just the medicine. We have air pollution, we have sleep, we have nutrition, we have exercise and we find that people are vastly more interested in medicine. And then these other influences on health, I’ve taught health economics many times in the past and health economic courses are usually overwhelmingly on medicine.
Even though we can see a lot of other things that correlate with health much more strongly, and clearly then doesn’t matter. So there’s this question of why is everybody so obsessed with medicine when other kinds of health correlates seem to matter more? Why aren’t they very interested in those other health Corps, like people are really want there to be a nationalized health system or some important health system.
They don’t really care about policy, about exercise or nutrition or sleep. They don’t think that there should be any policies for those things. That’s just things for people to do. Why
Scott: is that? Why is that though?
Robin: Well, that’s one of the puzzles we want to explain here in this package of X, you know, to explain the whole package of things on another couple might be people spend more on medicine when they get richer.
Have you moved from a coordination of originator and then you keep your income the same, you’ll spend more on medicine and the new place, because the people around you are spending more of those than keeping up with the Jones’s effectiveness. Okay. So we give some other puzzles in, in the book, but our key explanation is that what medicine fundamentally does is it helps people show that they care about other people.
And a lot of people allow other people to show that they care. So our analogy would be Valentine’s chocolate. So as you know, on Valentine’s is this tradition where you give your loved ones chop up. Now, when you give them so chocolate, you choose a quantity and you don’t choose the quantity based on how hungry you think they are.
That’s not the measure of how much chocolate you should give. It’s more about giving enough so that people who didn’t care as much as you wouldn’t be willing to give that much. You’re trying to show that you care by giving more. And if you think about quality, if you have a private opinion about the quality of the chocolate, or they have a private opinion about the quality of the chocolate, that doesn’t matter so much for the gift.
It’s primarily about commonly shared signals of quality. Everybody thinks a certain brand of chocolate is great. Then if you give them that brand, you expect them to give you credit and they expect to give you credit. Even as 90 of you actually likes that brand of chocolate, as long as they, you didn’t know that fact.
And if on Valentine’s day, you don’t have someone to give you chocolates. You might buy yourself a box of chocolate and leave it on the desk at work back in those days. Of course, when you went into the desk at work, why? Because you want people to know that you are cared for in the same way that other people are cared for.
If they are cared for, with chocolate thing, you watch off them because you want to seem cared for. So the analogy with medicine here is we give medicine to show that we care about people. So the quantity of medicine isn’t set by how much you need. It’s set by how much we need to spend and show that we care about ratchet, which is why we keep spending more.
As we getting richer, even if it’s enough, especially effective. And it’s why we don’t care very much about the private signals about the quality of medicine. Although we’re very sensitive to public signals about the quality of medicine by telling you privately some surgery is effective or not, you really don’t care.
But if we all have a perception about this, Hospital being high quality or something, then you cared to be, get taken to the high quality procedures hospital, because that’s something that will indicate whether somebody cares about you. And if you don’t have other people to buy medicine for you, you’ll buy it for yourself.
Scott: I just find it fascinating. Apologies. I didn’t I’m, I’m just, I’m just laughing as you, as you go through this, because everything you’re saying is not illogical and as is nothing that as you lay it out and you explain it is counter to what we could assume to be true, right? It’s not so far from it
Robin: point or obscure details or something.
These are pretty basic features of your world that about
Scott: people can be triggered
Robin: because they are saying things about your motives that you don’t necessarily want to admit to. You don’t want to admit that you’re primarily focused on showing you care about people or having them show they care about you.
And that makes it awkward. Well go, you might, you might think that researchers would be excited by this. So, you know, our book isn’t necessarily something ordinary people should read. If in fact it’ll make them harder to, you know, be, have the usual delusions that are in their benefit, but you might think that economists social scientists, policymakers, they should be interested in the topics because it’s lots about them personally, and more about the worlds that they’re trying to study and health.
So you would think policymakers would be excited to read this book because it helps them understand this world. They were struggling with it. You know, we so far struggled with good policy to help medicine or policy to health education, or even conversation. But once you have these insights, you think, well, now I will be in a better position to make better policy about, we have not really seen much.
In the way of policymakers excited about these insights mostly see ordinary people saying, yeah, that’s true. That makes sense. It satisfies my curiosity about how the world works. But much less. We’ve seen social scientists, like one a building. So like whenever we have the 10 chapters, as I said, you could do 10 or 20 more chapters.
What I hoped for somewhat is people saying, okay, I’ll do another chapter. I will take the basic idea and I will apply it to one more area of life and see how, where we can go with it. We have seen almost none of that
Scott: is that, is that because the policy makers, social scientists economists do they still have to sell the idea to the public
So we have our topic of when we discussed conversation, we talked about ordinary person to person conversation, but actually what we described also applies to media conversation and academic conversation and even policy conversation. All of these conversations, pretend to be about sharing information, but they’re really more about showing off your mental toolkit.
So in academia, for example, people will write a paper and talk about how it’s policy relevant as if some policy maker was supposed to like read it and do something with it. But in fact, it’s mainly to show off their ability to do difficult things. It’s a pulling something out of the backpack. And so academics don’t really much care about whether their paper will be applied in any way.
And they don’t really try very hard to make it useful. They are just trying to show off their mental backpack of tools and finishes. And again, because there’s fashions and topics, they want to stay with the current topic. And that’s also true in the policy world. There’s a rule of thumb in the policy world.
There’s no point in issuing a white paper on a topic that hasn’t been in the news in the last two weeks. There’s no point nobody will care. You have an idea about how the policy makes it different. The news media not talking about it, no other policy people are not interested either. Why because they only want to talk about what’s in the news lately because they want to follow his usual conversation.
We’ll have talking about whatever the current topic of conversation is. And so topics that our next chapter in the book you could do is, and it’s one of the current topics of news media conversation. Well, then it won’t be of interest. Similarly, in the current topic, the motive you would come up to explain is not a motive.
People want to hear about that will not be a welcome contribution to the current media conversation on the top.
Scott: I want to do, I want to do thank you for that. I want to do one more on politics. I just want to understand what a political decision is and what it isn’t and why we come to those decisions.
And I think it’s relevant given the fact that. Yeah, well, everything,
Robin: again, this is something that if you are involved in politics or political activism, you will find it harder to accept about yourself. Although you might find it very easy to accept about your political rivals and you so focus for the moment about your political rivals and what explains their behavior.
And I’m the slogan. Politics is not about policy. So if you ask people, why are you involved in politics? What’s the point? The usual answer will be, well, I am in do right. A Dudley do right? If you will. I am trying to push political opinion in a direction so that political action will be pushed in the direction.
We will elect different people who will adopt different policies, which will then have different effects on the world. That’s the usual story. And that roughly explains from a distance why people would be talking about politics and why they might March or write articles about it and why they might vote for some people, why those people might take political positions.
And so, again, as in all these other areas, it’s not crazy on the surface, you have to dig a bit beliefs the surface to see the puzzles that don’t fit very well with this simple story. Oh, what are some of the puzzles then? Well we are not, it’s very attentive to information about politics. We actually quite gullible relative to other areas of life, about our political opinions.
We’re very emotional about our political opinions. We care about politics, having positions that agree with ours, even when those politicians can’t do anything about that topic. So we care about what the president thinks about education. Even if the president doesn’t do much about education we. Like the people around us to share our political views, even if it doesn’t really affect what happens at the national level, we choose to vote or not, but that isn’t very sensitive to how pivotal the election is and how likely it is to turn on our vote.
We have these huge puzzling correlations where our political opinions on a wide range of topics all correlate strongly. So this one main ideological or political axis we disdain compromise. So when we talk about politics, we overwhelmingly talk about what we would do. If we were King, we very rarely say what we would give up to get what else as a practical compromise.
Although of course, practically politics is all about compromise. Politicians are good at compromise. Do not get rewarded by voters because of that. If you are good at setting up backroom deals and working out. Language of, of bills to get things to happen. You don’t get for that. You get votes for taking positions on subjects that you can’t do it.
Yeah. So these are all dramatic polls about our political attitudes and actions. And the alternate. Another story we have is that instead of a do right, you are an apparatchik is specifically the name of an old Soviet political operative, who was primarily focused on showing loyalty to the party loyalty to their associates in the political party.
So, so we tell the story in the book about how there was a meeting and lots of people were sitting in a meeting with seamless someone talk. And the speaker mentioned Stalin, who was the leader at the time, and everybody who was so eager to show that they love Stalin because people who didn’t got filled, stood up and started clapping loudly and they clapped for 10 minutes.
And of course near the end of that 10 minutes, everybody’s asking how much longer do we have to clap? I don’t want to be the first one to sit down. Cause then I look less loyal than the other people. Who’s going to sit down first. So eventually somebody sat down burst and that night they got taken off to Siberia.
Now the rest of us aren’t in such a dramatic situation, but we still face the same kind of incentives our effect on the national election or even the city election is minuscule, but our effect on the people around us and what they think of us as large. So we’re primarily expressing political opinions and voting and doing political things in order to get the people around us to think well and relate well to us.
And we know say some statistics, people are really quite willing to be discriminatory about politics, that handouts a, a scholarship on the basis of politics. They want their family members to marry people who agree with their politics. They care a lot about political associations. And so. The idea is that your actions of politics are mainly to show the people around you, that you are with them.
And they’re not so much to actually make a difference.
Scott: Do you find that that, that dogma, that, that people hold on so dearly to their political ideology? Is that an American thing or is that a political thing?
Robin: No, this was a thing all through history and all through the world. And people want to show in it.
They want to show that they are, I mean, we may be in the America out in especially time of high conflict between different political sides, but there’s always been this idea to show your allegiance to some political side. This is the consequences vary. So like in the Solomon’s time, the consequences were extreme even now in the United States, the consequences are that extreme, but they might be higher than they were at other times in places.
Scott: I just noticed I’ve noticed it in particular. When I understand politics, I look into what’s happening in the States right now, and the elections are coming up. And I was just curious because I see people that picks almost seemingly nonpolitical topics based on their party affiliation. For example, wearing a mask seems to be a political topic now, which I don’t really understand how that turned political, but yeah.
So that’s this
Robin: one dimensional thing. So it’s worth talking about that. When, so politics is a high dimensional space, right? There’s this whole space of all the different policies, but there’s a tendency to form an alignment along one axis, and then to focus on the projection of other things along that axis because we’re all looking at what you’re doing and saying, whose side are you on?
And as soon as we see a correlation, when more people on this side wear a mask, then on that side where the mask now wearing a mask, becomes a sign and being on that side and now people who are. Who do want to seem on that side or more pushed to do that thing. So you have this feedback mechanism where you buy things, just get politicized because the eager thing is to show what side you’re on.
And the incidental thing is which, whether you are a master, all the other things, but of course you don’t say that you don’t say, well, the reason I’m wearing a mask, because I want to show my political loyalty. You say I’m wearing a mask because of the safe, how dare you ignorant the moral person that wear a mask, because you know, you’re talking about the mask itself, as opposed to the more fundamental motive, which is to be on a side and show that you’re on a side.
Scott: Very interesting. I love, I love these concepts. I’m gonna, you know, listen, I, I don’t know if everyone would enjoy this book. But if you, if, if
Robin: you, well, by now, you’re put a lot of the basic concepts. You probably have some idea whether you want to read the book. Yeah.
Scott: I love this stuff. This is absolutely fascinating for me.
Absolutely fascinating. And it’s something we haven’t
Robin: talked about. What good is it though?
Scott: No, we haven’t. I actually, I didn’t. I avoided that topic cause I was afraid he was going to say there, there is none. There’s no, there’s no happy story.
Robin: It’s measured. It’s it’s it’s moderate. It’s not overwhelming. But there are several benefits here.
So some benefits are personal. So many people like say me are somewhat nerdy. Our subconscious doesn’t do social reasoning as well as other people. So when my subconscious tells me what to do, it’s not as accurate as guessing what other people will want me to do and what would go well fearfully. So for many people, they just act in the social world and it goes very smoothly because their intuition just tells them the right things to do.
And they do it. And so they don’t actually know that there’s theories about the social world contradict the behavior, because they’re not explicitly thinking about their behavior, but if you’re a nerdy, less socially skilled person like myself, it may do your well to have more explicit theories about the world to help you act more intelligently socially.
I mean, that will come at a cost of your being less sincere in some sense, perhaps, but seeming to calculate that since you’re already somewhat socially incapable and that I still be a net win for you, you might also be a person for whom understanding other people’s motives is especially important. It might be a sales person or a manager, and those jobs it’s essential to your job.
You get that wrong, you get the whole thing wrong. And so I might say, well, we were having a bit more conscious knowledge about how these things work, because it’s so central to yourself. And thirdly, you might be a social scientist or policymakers, or you’re trying to make better policy for education or for politics or for medicine.
And then if you misunderstand the basics of theory, you’ve been studying your whole life, you will just go where you’re wrong and your problem gets harder now. So I would say the usual problem, people think they have is Casey usual thing. People say they want him get the more of it, but now you have to take the thing people say they want and know the thing they really want.
And you have to find a new policy that continues to pretend to give them the thing they say they want, but now actually gives them more of the thing they really want. Then they will be interested in adopting your policy, because what if you just give them more, what they pretend the one without any indication to give them more what they really want.
They won’t actually be interested in that. Plausibly explained a lot of policy failures, where we have consistently come up with on what looks like on paper, better ways to give people what they say they want. And people are just not interested, probably because they know us a level. They are not interested because they’re lying about what they want.
Scott: Very very interesting. I appreciate that. You, you got all the points that I wanted to cover, so thank you so much. I want to, I, unless there’s something else, I think we covered a lot of elephant in the brain. I wanted to ask just some personal life lesson questions, if that’s okay. Deceptive.
Robin: Although I want to make one final statement, which is, I love people and you love people and it’s fine to love people, even knowing all this stuff, right?
So you might think this is a downer and this is sort of a people hating sort of attitude. And it certainly doesn’t have to be. I mean, if you want to hate people, maybe this will give you an excuse, but you don’t have to eight people. I think humans are by far the most interesting animals on the planet or in some sense, the most admirable plant animals on the planet in terms of how well we can cooperate as a nice things we do for each other and for other animals.
And so humans are great. They may not be the angels, they pretend, but they can still be fascinating, lovable creatures
Scott: and a highly complex and a little bit confused
Robin: all at the same time, which can make all the more level. Exactly,
Scott: exactly. Very good. Okay, so now the only questions that I really have left are more to do with you, what you’re working on now.
And then I have some life insight questions. Like I mentioned, life, lesson questions. So you’ve done so much over your career. What, what are you interested in now? What have you thought,
Robin: what’s your next book? Like? I always have been struggling. I’m struggling between lots of little interesting topics that come across every day versus focusing on a long-term project and setting those small things aside.
That’s been my conflict all my whole life. So my, my plan for my next book is about paying for results. How we can reform a lot of different areas of life by creating institutions where you basically measure what you want and you pay for it. And we could reform medicine and law and a lot of other areas of life and politics in particular, through paying for results.
It’s a simple concept, but it just hasn’t been pursued as far as you can go with it. And I want to just show how far you can go with the idea. You know, it’s not something that I expect people to immediately adopt. It. I’m sort of a set up for the long run. I’m often like trying to create books that will sit on the shelf in the long run and later on, someone will pull it off and maybe do something with it.
But that’s sort of the idea, the next book I want to be writing on them. I have a lot of stuff already honest, but there’s all these little things that come up every day that came to me away like Egypt today. I was tempted to think about, fraternalism cause it’s something I’ve written on in the past.
And I just realized that. I could say, well, the key thing to understanding of paternalism it’s really about dominance and people are just pretending to care about other people. And so, I mean, I realized I hadn’t said that as directly in strongly as I could. And it’s relatively simple thing to say, but paternalism is where we have policies that like tell other people what to do as if we were a parent and as something of a theoretical probable cause you could just give people advice instead of forcing them to do something.
But we don’t just give them advice. We do force them to do things. And the question is, why are we bothered with that? And there’s a lot of argument about why that, but I think the simplest explanation is because many of us are control freaks. You just look at your ordinary lives and the people around you, you know, there are control freaks around you.
What does that mean? There are people who just push harder to get their way. Not just to make sure they can run their life their own way, but to do shared things their way that make us all you, your group go to their restaurant or to have the vacation of their favorite time. And they push even farther to get you to do things their way they may criticize your order of what foods you eat or whether you exercise enough and things like that.
Why do they do that? Well, in part, because it feels good and they win, right? I mean, they dominate humans, how this tendency to sort of struggle for dominance and one signal and dominance is people do things your way. And I think that’s just such a familiar feature about personal interactions that I think we should, when we look at the larger political fare, we should just say, well, that’s the same thing going on there.
We should. Why even presume it’s something different? I mean, people say it’s different, but I did this poll yesterday, I guess I finished yesterday basically saying in the, in your world with people who are control freaks, do they correlate with do-gooders? And the answer was yes. Three to one margin. People who are, do litters are also tend to be control freaks.
Why? Because in some sense, they, weren’t trying to rationalize their push. They’re pushing. They’re trying to make you and everyone do things their way, but they’re saying they’re doing it all for your own good. That’s a common thing. People and managers do that. Of course, people, people fight to become a manager, but when they are a manager, they say they’re doing it all for everybody’s own everybody’s collective good.
Right? So this is a very common thing to rationalize stroke, the push for dominance, the push for control in terms of trying to help everyone. And that just makes to me is a very simple story about paternalism it’s. It should be the default story. It doesn’t mean that it’s never useful because of course it’s good to have leaders, right?
Just because people try to become leaders out of selfish reasons and they gain selfish benefits doesn’t mean we don’t need leaders. But that doesn’t mean we should have just a default suspicion that we need a higher standard than them claiming that they are useful for us to accept it. Right. So we should have some say default presumption against fraternalism and then allow in particular cases that to be overturned, just like among our friends, we have a default that other people can’t just tell you what to do, even if they’re pushy and more dominant you know, it’s your life and you should be able to do what you want.
And they didn’t have to overcome that presumption to push you out of it. Anyway, that’s something on my mind in the last day you were asking about.
Scott: I have no, I’m curious. And to follow up with that, it’s a very interesting topic. And again, the book will obviously be another really, really interesting read, but when you, when you put so much effort into thinking on a topic and putting together a work and speaking on it for a period of time, do you not do, why do you not double down and, and not want to further gain acceptance of a particular topic or further teach it or, or see something to like through to fruition a little bit more than switching to something completely different.
I feel like this service due to your knowledge, it’s a
Robin: very basic deep question. So first I’ll say like, Ordinary people’s basic reactions to intellectual realism is to be a Peloton, right? If you just take an ordinary person, you talk about interesting topics, they will jump from topic to topic. They won’t focus their life on one topic, right?
So it’s just humanly natural to want to sort of have encompassing views on everything and to not spend too much time on any one topic that is just human nature. And so you have to overcome that to make someone become a specialist. They have to see these strong career rewards to be a specialist and to be induced, to become a specialist.
And so you can say I’m lazy and have allowed by ordinary human nature to, to influence my actions more than I should. I’m not self controlled or disciplined enough. That would be one interpretation. Another interpretation might be to say that, well, maybe I’ve specialized in sort of a high level thinking, and I’m not so good at all the details.
So, you know, there there’s there’s room in the world for people who specialize at a more abstract level and a more making the connections level. And sort of noticing the very basic points level and less on the getting into the details. So, I mean, you know, in some sense, a lot of being a intellectual, just being a worker of any sort is deciding what is my specialty, what, what will be the thing I put skills in, and that I am good at relative to what other people are good at.
So it could be just a very particular topic that as I learn everything there is to know about medicine say, and then I am the expert who talks about medicine, and then I have this point about medicine, but that I know a lot about it. And then another question as well. So let’s say I have the basic point about medicine, which I’ve just outlined before might as well.
If I’ve learned a lot more about medicine, how much would that really help me make that general point? It might get me invited to conferences more or into journals more, but then I couldn’t be making that general point. I’d have to be making all these other points. And so what a lot of people do is they invest in credibility and area by doing a bunch of specific things.
And then they have a point that isn’t very connected to all the things they use to get credibility. That’s just the thing that gives them a license to say something. And a lot of academia and intellectual world is that way. When people actually say the points that that most matter most of the rest of their intellectual world, wasn’t the preparation or support for that.
It was just credibility. It just made you seem more authoritative. And so that we would listen to you on this thing you said, but actually all the other work you do, didn’t actually make much difference on this point. And so if that’s the situation I might choose not to invest in all that credibility and more become a specialist in noticing these points.
And so if you want to notice the high level point, then you want to have an experience about seeing a lot of other high level points. That are somewhat similar at that level of abstraction. So I think that even though most people over their career, they start to slow down at a certain, you know, at a certain age, if your specialty is connecting things across a wide range, you have a scale economy that the more things you see in the more things you can connect.
And so you will peak at a later age because you’re still collecting so analogies. Right? So the more, I mean, for each of these things, I tell you about part of what makes me feel more comfortable saying is that I can see a lot of things like it in other areas. And so I’m focused more on the, rather than say, go into medicine in great detail go into other similar things and show by analogy.
So for example, the chapter on education is crept from my colleagues book, the case against education, Brian Caplin. So he died in education. Now the question is people are skeptical about his claim of education, even though we’re making the same claim in this book. And part of the reason they’re skeptical is that just seems like a crazy claim.
If all you ever studied was education, then it would seem crazy. It seems crazy to think education isn’t about learning the material because all your life that’s been the whole topic you’ve been talking about an education. I think you can only start to appreciate the hypothesis. That education is about learning the material.
When you see the same pattern in a bunch of other areas. And that’s the point of our book here is to say, look, there’s this idea that makes sense. And there’s a whole bunch of areas where it applies to. And I think they each strengthen the other in the sense of seeing the whole package of the same kind of pattern makes it more plausible that the pattern is there in any one area.
So I’d say our book makes it plausible that education could be about something else, because look at all these other areas that are about something else.
Scott: That makes a lot of sense that there is, there is a significant amount of, of understanding of the diminishing returns, especially in your own career as well.
And that, that you, they, you see when or an academic sees when they take something on. And that’s, that’s sort of, what’s fueled your, your career. And I, and I appreciate that
Robin: finding more discoveries, even if I can’t support them with the majority or, you know, gravitas. Yeah. I’m not going to grab a top authority route.
Cause there, if I wanted to say, make the claim on my medicine, I’d want to spend my whole life doing surgery or doing biochemistry or huge statistical databases or knowing the history of medicine in Serbia. I mean, and impressing you with all the details. I know. And then I would be this authority who might listen to about it, but the point I would make wouldn’t be any stronger per se, in terms of the evidence, it would just be, I was a person you should listen to.
Scott: Another question. Where is a resource that you go to or resources to learn new topics, to understand new things?
Robin: Well, early in life, I recommend textbooks. Honestly, textbooks are our standard way to summarize a lot of important material on a dense place. So until you’ve read most textbooks in most areas, just read textbooks, don’t even bother it.
Don’t look at the news because the news is the most recent stuff that changes. It doesn’t really last after textbooks, go to review articles. That’s an attempt to take dozens or hundreds of papers in an area and summarize them all for an audience, a word review articles. And then once you’ve read lots of review articles you know, at this point I mostly look for puzzles.
I just try to track different areas and look for things that are puzzling that stand out as going well, my usual theory didn’t predict that because that’s my data puzzles or my data, actually the puzzles and try to explain them together. And so whenever I notice a puzzle, but I’m here to, so just this week I noticed a pothole, it flagged it away and it’s apparently most animals.
If you give them a choice between two kinds of food, one is just sitting there and one, they have to work at, they go after the one they have to work at except domestic cats apparently.
And of course, right, so that’s a fun, that’s a puzzle, right? And I just came across this week and that I go, that’s gold. I don’t know the explanation yet. I’m not trying to make the explanation yet. I’m going to put it in my pile of puzzles. And later on, I’ll see what other puzzles are nearby and see if I can find something to make sense of it.
Scott: Do you delve into any non academia works are there authors books that you enjoy or is that just pure pleasure reading? There’s nothing there that can really provide.
Robin: I like many people, I like movies and of course movies often depict a world and I’m often asking myself how believable is that world?
Or if there’s something believe about the world, do my theory is productive. And the parts, this is what I can do in my personal life as well. But movies are giving you a sort of Southern more dramatic examples, but just in general I’m constantly asking about the world around me. Did my theory predict that do our best theories predict that?
Or is that a puddle? And it turns out there’s just a lot of puddles you’ll notice in your ordinary life. If you bothered to look just like we talked earlier about people being more eager to talk than to listen. I mean, most people know that, but do they know what the public do they realize that their simple theory of conversation doesn’t predict that that’s the key is to notice a pattern and then wonder.
Whether your theory predicts it because often people just see things they not as familiar. And then they have a theory about the world and they don’t connect their theory to the behavior they see around them. They just have a neat little theory. They’ll spit out for you, but it’s not tested against the world.
Scott: Very interesting. Very, very interesting. And now just I guess, pulling out of your career and your success it’s a very light question, but I do ask it to everyone. So I apologize if it seems very light, but I always ask a simple lesson that you would tell your younger self based on your career,
Robin: a simple lesson.
I dunno if it’s a lesson, but there’s this simple advice, which is just lives are long. So you can do a lot in most, any area, if you will just stick with it. Cause often young people are they’re in a rush and they feel like time’s up and it’s too late and oops, they did the wrong thing. And now it’s over and that’s just not true.
We’re rich. And we live a long time. And so you didn’t apply to the right college or go to the right graduate program or choose the right advisor or you quit and like to work, or you made the wrong choice at some point, fine. You still have 40 years left in your life. You can do a lot in 40 years, even without permission or official endorsement, you can just do it.
I mean, another key point is a lot of people want to learn through school and you can just learn without school. If you heard smart and motivated, you don’t need school to learn. You can just pick up books or articles or even just think for yourself and just work on it. And so, you know, in some sense, the Mays hate advices.
If there’s a topic and you want to, it’s important to you and you want to go at it, just go at it. You know, as best you can get help, find, get help. If you can get teachers to teach you great. If you find a textbook, great. If you don’t have those things, you can just make progress by struggling at it. As long as you will just keep going year after year or even decade after decade.
I mean, the problem is people are often interested in something temporarily and then they lose interest and then they drop it. Right. And then of course you won’t make progress after that point.
Scott: And then this is the, this is the question that is it in, in line with the name of the podcast? What does success mean for you?
Robin: Well, so for me, I’ve always thought of, you know, Einstein or people like that as my heroes. So I always thought of success as having insights that you communicate to the world that change how the world thinks and on big, important topics. So it took me a long time to realize that other people don’t see success that way, which explains why a lot of other people do different things than I do.
To me, it was so obvious that that wasn’t the thing you wanted to do that I didn’t even bother to ask whether people around me were pursuing that goal. I assumed that they were pursuing that goal in different methods. And then I was wondering whether they were doing different things to me, but again, just as with the book, it’s simpler.
Just think they have different goals for many people. That’s not the image of an intellectual. They aspire to be, they want to be a respected professor at Harvard or a person with a long Vieta or somebody with students come to, or somebody who was invited to give talks back to the idea of what they would want to be.
And then they do things that produce that outcome.
Scott: why do you think that that was your definition of, of success? I’m trying to understand what yeah.
Robin: Well, I mean I. I was excited to see these powerful insights in physics. That was one of the areas that really excited me when I was in high school in college, there are all these powerful, deep insights that really helped me see the world differently and seem to have a lot of leverage and understanding of the world.
And that’s so engrossed to me that I thought, well, that wasn’t thing you want to do. You want these powerful, deep insights? And then of course I heard of heroes like Einstein or other people like that assistance disrupt these heroes. And as I said before, I was arrogant enough to think I could be one of those.
I thought, well, I’m as good as anybody I know. And so that’s the thing you want to be. So let me try to be that. And that meant I had to like, think about things directly myself. I couldn’t just take people’s word for it. I had to think through things. And I had asked myself what I believe, and I had asked myself what was missing and I had to define for myself what was important.
I mean, you know, that’s how you would think of Einstein or fireman or any other big person you would say, well, they took on the world. They said, this is the world in front of me. I have to ask myself what’s important. What’s missing. What makes sense. And I asked to make those judgements and I have to follow them by choosing allocate my time to think and go looking for long shots, looking for things that has at least a chance of being a big thing.
You don’t, you don’t, you don’t want to go for a long shot. That’s so long that like, there’s almost no chance. On the other hand, you don’t want something. That’s so small that even if you do succeed, who cares looking for that in the middle, it’s got a chance. It could be really big there’s it looks like there might be a way to do it.
And you take a bunch of little lottery tickets you keep trying, and it turns out it’s not actually that hard. So what I did realize is that it would be much easier to actually have powerful insights that matter a lot, then to get anybody to care. What I didn’t realize is those successful people who had the big insights, they were a selection out of lots of other people that insights, but people, the world cared about their insights and not about all the others.
And that’s for the puzzle lot academic. Well, why does the academia only care about some of these insights. And then once you understand academia better, you can come to understand that. But that was my misunderstanding. I say, I see these heroes and they’re celebrated for their insights. And I say, I want to be like them.
I want those insights. And of course they’re really also insights package with, you know, well done internal academic politics, but that’s what not what they talk about when they talk about these heroes. So I wasn’t thinking about, I need to have an insight and do academic politics. Well, I was just thinking about, I need to have the answers.
Scott: Very good. Very interesting. I love, I love understanding how your mind works too. I think it’s very even listen, you’re not outside of just the, the, the, the incredible career, even the way that you thought about your own career and success. I just find it’s very interesting to unpack that. Because I think that people all look at success and career and growth in different ways.
So I appreciated the fact that you said life is long. I think it’s incredible advice. And then use that long life to understand yourself, your drivers and to, you know, yeah. And, and, and you can do it. Just, just, just figure out what that is and just go with it, for sure.
Robin: It’s all right. To think of mistaken misjudge and keepers judging.
You can go 20 years in this judging. You’ll still have many decades after that, but to finally pick something and stick with it.
Scott: All right. Last last thing I got to do is to get all of your socials and your website, but before I get that, is there anything else that you wanted just to close up closing thoughts on this?
Robin: No. And I’ve enjoyed our conversation. I’m happy to
Scott: do it again sometime. No, likewise, well next book considering it’s going to be brand new. We’ll go through all of that. I’ll learn about a whole bunch more. And we’ll do another one. When do you know when that’s going to be out your next book?
So now you have some time, right? Because you asked them extra at home time. So now you should, you should have went through. All right. Okay. So where do people go to connect with you online?
Robin: Well my website is hanson.gmu.edu, and on Twitter, I’m at Robin Hanson and I have a blog called overcoming bias.com.
So My name they’ll find.
Success Story Podcast
Stories worth telling.
On the Success Story podcast, Scott has candid interviews with execs, celebrities, notable figures and politicians. All who have achieved success through both wins and losses, to learn more about their life, their ideas and insights.
He sits down with leaders and mentors and unpacks their story to help pass those lessons onto others through both experiences and tactical strategy for business professionals, entrepreneurs and everyone in between.