Bryan Caplan  

Supplemental Pessimism

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More things I'm pessimistic about:

1. I think First World happiness is basically maxed out.  In rich countries, your happiness depends on your personality, not your situation.  And personality is really hard to change.  Tyler says he's a "revenue pessimist but a happiness optimist."  I expect people to keep complaining no matter how many marvels and wonders the economy delivers.

2. I don't think the Flynn effect represents a meaningful increase in intelligence.  To the best of my knowledge, there is zero evidence that the Flynn gains have "external validity"; i.e., that as a result of higher scores, people today are better at learning real-world tasks. When you look at subtests, people have improved in some highly g-loaded tasks, especially Ravens matrices.  But they're no better at other highly g-loaded tasks, especially vocabulary.  The areas of improvement seem almost random.  The best explanation, in my view, is that we aren't really smarter than people a century ago.

3. Third edition Mutants and Masterminds is much worse than second edition.  But don't despair: my True20 House Rules stand on the shoulders of the second edition. ;-)


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Happiness is, on the scale of nations and era's, always 'maxed out', or at least stable. Your frantic efforts might make the carrot dangle around a little, but it was never set up in such as way as to be reachable.

If maxing out happiness is what you are after, playing with your brain chemistry is where it is at; heroin would be a good start, for instance.

Jim Glass writes:

"things I'm pessimistic about: ... I think First World happiness is basically maxed out."

This is bad? Let's say we max life expectancy too. Cause for pessimism?

I'd say "skepticism" about unlimited further improvement is a better choice of word than "pessimism", as if such achievements portend ill.

"I don't think the Flynn effect represents a meaningful..."

Well, on the one hand it's obvious that the genetic code couldn't imaginably have changed enough to make us *really* 30 IQ points (two standard deviations!) smarter in just 100 years, at any fundmamental level. So one simply can't expect to see what would be the result of such a huge jump across-the-board.

But in the other hand ... read a couple good histories of WWI, a hundred years ago, and see if you don't come away feeling, "Huh?? How could those people ever have thought that way?", about the people at every level, from peasant masses to kings and generals -- everywhere, all over the world.

Three points a decade for a century is a huge increase in IQ. If it makes itself felt even in only a modest set of behaviors, that's still one very big benefit.

So again I'd say "skepticism about seriously exaggerating the benefits of the Flynn effect" make sense. But what's to be "pessimistic" about -- unless you think it is about to head into reverse?

[edited for inappropriate language--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Miller writes:

Bryan, everything you wrote about the Flynn Effect is consistent with Dickens-Flynn. People aren't getting better at vocabulary subtests because they don't use those skills. Actually, it's worse: they dont use them skilz. I wouldn't be surprised if verbal skills show a slight decline over the coming years while spatial reasoning, etc. continues to improve. Does that mean people are becoming more intelligent in ways that make them more productive than before? I don't know. My guess is: yes. I think vocabulary matters most for those of us who speak and write for a living. I'm not sure if engineers, actuaries, or baristas (etc. etc.) need those skills nearly as much. Why would you be pessimistic about non-generall (but observable) increases in intelligence?

Steve Miller writes:

I held that L key a little too lllong...

Matt writes:

Your first point is very true. I think misery has mostly gone from objective to subjective in this country.

Finch writes:

> Well, on the one hand it's obvious that the
> genetic code couldn't imaginably have changed
> enough to make us *really* 30 IQ points (two
> standard deviations!) smarter in just 100 years,
> at any fundmamental level.

There are academics who argue that the Flynn effect is genetic. The argument is that even just 100 years ago western populations were highly inbred, because long-distance travel was rare. We are much less inbred today, and may still have room for improvement.

One big advantage of this theory is that it is going to become testable in the mid-term future.

As to Bryan's observation in (2), I can't talk to people more than 20 years older than myself without reinforcing my belief in the reality of the Flynn effect. Fortunately (unfortunately?) I get a similar feeling with respect to my children.

David C writes:

I've also noticed older people generally being less intelligent than my peers. It's especially obvious when I compare parents with children. The only exception I can think of used to have a very serious drug problem, and he's still equal to his parents. My general sense is that the main difference is fewer biases. This could also be a result of aging. In 30 years, I and my peers could be as dumb as our parents are today.

IVV writes:

3. Hey, thanks for posting your house rules. I was beginning to worry that the learning curve for HERO 6th might cause some problems, especially if you're trying to teach players from scratch. I'll have to see if the campaign I have in mind can be reasonably emulated via True20.

Dan Meyer writes:

Personality is hard to mold in the exact shape we want it to, but our brain is plastic, so our personality is changing continuously. We 'just' have to put ourselves in an environment (e.g. one full of happy people and interesting work) and in the long-run we'll see some of the change(s) we want (echoes of David Brooks). Which is also hard, but gives me a lot of hope.

In the short run, getting a ton of sleep, eating real food and moving better (note that I didn't say "exercising more") can, I suspect, get you way farther to a happy personality than you'd have thought. Of course, that's not easy either. But it gives me yet more hope.

Evan writes:
I think First World happiness is basically maxed out. In rich countries, your happiness depends on your personality, not your situation.
I think this is very true, but I also think there is more to life than happiness, and that living in a first world country can help to achieve those goals. For instance, I want to be a good person who doesn't hurt others. A version of Evan who lived in a hunter-gatherer tribe might be just as happy as 1stWorldEvan, but he'd probably also kill tons of innocent people for being witches. I'm glad to avoid that. In fact, if I was given a choice between living a depressed life in a First World country where I did some good, or a happy life in a 3rd world country where I participated in witch hunts, there's no question which one I'd pick living in the first world.

I'm also glad to have a scientific understanding of the universe. I wouldn't give that up to live a happier life somewhere else.

3. Third edition Mutants and Masterminds is much worse than second edition. But don't despair: my True20 House Rules stand on the shoulders of the second edition. ;-)
I'm sorry to hear that. I hope you have enough copies of the old sourcebooks bought up. They can get expensive after a new edition comes out, especially if it's bad.
Sol writes:

Hmm. I wonder if there's some interesting economic story for why revamps of RPGs are so frequently downgrades?

I'm thinking particularly of the Star Wars games here... I was in a long d20 campaign, very fun and I can't remember ever really complaining about the system. Eventually we switched to M&M 2nd edition for a year or two. When we did return to SW, we "upgraded" to the Saga Edition. While we still had lots of fun, there were obvious major problems with the system lurking right under the hood. (I particularly recall that one of our 5th level Jedis was able to do the Jedi Mind Trick at such a high level that he would have to be trying to control Vader or the Emperor to have even a small chance of failure.) Now that system is being dumped for a completely new system...

Has there ever been a revamp that was actually worth buying a complete set of new rulebooks? The only one I can think of is GURPS...

IVV writes:

Sol:

D&D 3rd edition completely recharged the D&D brand. It was a huge revamp on 2e, and absolutely needed. Now, of course, there's the division between D&D 4th ed and Pathfinder, but I think it's taking the game in two different directions, choose your path as you like.

Tell me more about the GURPS revamp. Which edition switch are you talking about?

Hunter writes:

I think the Flynn effect can be, at least partially, genuine at the low end if you think about the overall reduction in drinking during pregnancy and a similar reduction in childhood diseases over the past 100 years. Either of these would contribute to fewer mentally impaired people in the population. More speculatively you may have more assortative mating at the high end.

Hunter writes:
read a couple good histories of WWI, a hundred years ago, and see if you don't come away feeling, "Huh?? How could those people ever have thought that way?", about the people at every level, from peasant masses to kings and generals

I think part of this, at least in Europe, is that most everyone was drunk, most of the time. Before water purification was introduced most europeans drank to avoid the disease that came from contaminated water. I recall a bit about the provisioning of french laborers around the turn of the last century and they required on the order of 10-20 bottles of wine a day, per worker, this was normal, though the taste in tipples varied across class and country in europe at the time. I can't think of any profession, save maybe the law, where this would be acceptable these days. Maybe the Flynn effect is just a result of mass sobriety.

Dan Meyer writes:
I think part of this, at least in Europe, is that most everyone was drunk, most of the time.

Dan Carlin did an entertaining show on this

and Daniel Okrent cites some pretty amazing alcohol consumption figures in his appearance on EconTalk

[nonfunctioning personal link removed--Econlib Ed.]

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