Bryan Caplan  

Social Undesirability Bias

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When the truth sounds bad, people lie.  They lie to others.  They lie to themselves.  That's the essence of Social Desirability Bias, one of the most powerful forces in the social world.  Politics without Social Desirability Bias would be almost unrecognizable.  Just imagine a world where politicians frequently said, "We use too many resources on medicine and education," "Most people are perfectly able to provide for their own retirement," and "Statistically, terrorism is no big deal."  Few people will vote for effective policies they're ashamed to pronounce - or even think.

If you spend a little time on the internet, you'll find exceptions.  Happily, you'll notice people who value being right more than sounding good.  If you search longer, however, you'll bizarrely discover people who gravitate to views that sound awful.  When the truth sounds good, they deny it.  When an ugly view has a kernel of truth, they proclaim it universal law.  Maybe they're trolling, maybe they drink their own Kool-Aid.  Either way, a sliver of humanity vocally exhibits Social Undesirability Bias.  They lie to themselves and others when the truth sounds good

Social Undesirability Bias, like Social Desirability Bias, can be hard to pinpoint.  Don't you have to figure out the truth in order to know who's "biased" and in which direction?  You do.  But humans are so prone to hyperbole that canonical examples of Social Undesirability Bias are all around us. 

When people look at multi-ethnic societies, and assure us that full-blown race war is "inevitable in the next few decades," they're guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.

When people look at international relations, and proclaim that the deaths of millions of innocents is our only hope for peace and prosperity, they're guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.  (Yes, I have heard this homicidal lunacy privately voiced several times).

When people look at millions of desperate Syrian refugees, and insist that they're going to "ruin our institutions" if we grant them refuge, they're guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.

When people look at rapid increase in the use of fossil fuels in the developing world, and declare that mankind will ultimately be poorer as a result, they're guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.

If you insist that what I call your Social Undesirability Bias is actually my Social Desirability Bias, I'm happy to bet at suitable odds. I've done so many times before.

Are my examples of Social Undesirability Bias mere straw men?  Maybe they're a straw man of you.  But they're not a straw man of a bunch of other people in your intellectual tribe.  And if you team up with them, their biases become your biases by osmosis.  To quote 8mm, "If you dance with the devil, the devil don't change. The devil changes you."

The saddest thing about Social Undesirability Bias is that it often begins as a well-founded revolt against Social Desirability Bias.  Intelligence research, for example, is a fountain of truth.  It's maligned because saying, "Individuals and groups fail because they're stupid" sounds bad.  After enduring unjustified abuse, however, I've noticed that IQ fanboys start gravitating to misanthropic hyperbole.  A mild form: Cavalierly claiming that modestly below-average IQ workers have "zero marginal product."  An egregious form: Gleefully claiming that mankind's total utility would be higher if below-average IQ workers had never been born.

Sometimes we face tragic choices.  This is a pervasive truth that Social Desirability Bias spurs us to deny.  At least in the modern world, though, we usually don't face tragic choices.  If your go-to solution to social problems is to kill people, sterilize them, or trap them in a war zone, you are not seeing the world clearly.  Social Undesirability Bias is far less prevalent than Social Desirability Bias.  But it still unhinges many a brilliant mind.

P.S. Feel free to prove the non-existence of Social Undesirability Bias by being scrupulously civil and fair-minded in the comments.




COMMENTS (26 to date)
Dangerman writes:

"Yes, a handful of people have IQs so low their marginal product is negative. But the vast majority of low-IQ people pull their weight."

Anyone have any hard data on how much of each?

Caplan admits that *some non-zero amount* of people exist with

Dangerman writes:

[Darn it, not having the ability to edit comments here.]

"Yes, a handful of people have IQs so low their marginal product is negative. But the vast majority of low-IQ people pull their weight."

"Yes, a handful of people have IQs so low their marginal product is negative. But the vast majority of low-IQ people pull their weight."

Anyone have any hard data on how much of each?

Caplan admits that *some non-zero amount* of people exist with less than ZMP. So this sounds like a vague debate about exactly how much is "some"/"a lot"/"most" etc.

A very good point. Social undesirability bias is certainly something one observes among some of the heterodox. It may even be something one has fallen victim too, though I shall try to do better.

I think one of the explanations for this is a sort of search strategy for novel truths.

We all want to find them, or at least be the first to explain them to our peers. But novel truths are hard to find. Almost everything useful and true (e.g., "It is a good idea to have a glass of water when you are thirsty") is so well known that little is gained by restating it. Truly novel and useful ideas are generally to be found only at the outer edges of science and in a realm few of us can reach.

However, there is one rich lode of novel truths close to the surface: the socially undesirable truths! They are easy to find and explain, yet still novel enough to sufficiently many to be worth stating.

Once this desire for novel truths overcomes the desire for social acceptance, there are countless novel truths one can share! And the more one does, the less the marginal social cost is. Those who will abandon those who express socially undesirable truths have already done so. Those who remain are tolerant.

However, eventually even this well of novel truths runs out. One either has to start digging much deeper, or perhaps become a little less discerning about the necessary truth of one's novelties. Digging deeper being hard and slow work, taking the other branch is an attractive option.

Aardvark writes:

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Sub Specie Æternitatis writes:

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E. Harding writes:

"An egregious form: Gleefully claiming that mankind's total utility would be higher if below-average IQ workers had never been born."
-I don't see anything egregious about that. I think this is the view of most Progressives, as well as of myself.

I freely admit to occasionally engaging in Social Undesirability bias. My political views (Russophilia, anti-anti-Iranism, opposition to HBD denial in public policy, and belief at least some prominent mainstream politicians are actual Nazis and sadists, or are their moral equivalents) are quite different from those of the mainstream and, once one has rejected the fundamental pillars of mainstream media ideology, one tends to react to it instinctively by flipping the pillar around 180 degrees upside-down, and seeing if it sticks. And sometimes, it does stick.

BTW, Steve Sailer is sometimes prone to this, but it's not found in anything like every post or half his posts. It's like one in ten or one in fifteen posts.

Henri Hein writes:

Second the Steve Sailer suggestion, though I worry we might be failing Caplan's call for being scrupulously civil and fair-minded.

Floccina writes:

This post is why I read Bryan and feel amiably toward him.

Henri Hein writes:

I like this term and I now have an answer to an earlier question you posted:

The Ethics of Terminus

When the Terminants argue that it's OK to eat us, they are showing Social Undesirability Bias.


Oblomov writes:

Race war? Not yet... Human Biodiversity wars, exactly as the great Jon Haidt predicted back in peaceful 2009:

http://edge.org/response-detail/10376

FASTER EVOLUTION MEANS MORE ETHNIC DIFFERENCES
The most offensive idea in all of science for the last 40 years is the possibility that behavioral differences between racial and ethnic groups have some genetic basis. Knowing nothing but the long-term offensiveness of this idea, a betting person would have to predict that as we decode the genomes of people around the world, we're going to find deeper differences than most scientists now expect. Expectations, after all, are not based purely on current evidence; they are biased, even if only slightly, by the gut feelings of the researchers, and those gut feelings include disgust toward racism. (...)

I believe that the "Bell Curve" wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence, will seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits. I predict that this "war" will break out between 2012 and 2017.

[indention added to clarify quoted material--Econlib Ed.]

Vaniver writes:

William Shockley, Nobel prize winner in physics (one of the three inventors of the semiconductor) and one of the main forces behind Silicon Valley, spent much of the latter years of his life pushing the relationship between race and IQ and promoting eugenics.

What I find interesting about this is that Shockley was apparently a jerk and poor manager, and many of his former friends suspected that he may have picked those particular issues because of their social undesirability.

But I think this is a rarity, and having this hypothesis in your toolbox may cause you to take people less seriously than you should.

Randall Parker writes:

We really do have problems with low IQ people getting into work. Consider my post Employment-Population Ratio By Education Level. Another sign of the problem: more people are getting stuck at minimum wage.

I'm expecting smart machines to have the same impact on lower IQ workers that dumb machines had on the use of horses for transportation and farming.

The motive in Social Desireability Bias (as Brian Caplan says) is to be seen as a good and empathetic person.

Motto: I want to help people even if there is a personal or societal sacrifice.

I don't see the motive of Undesireability Bias as being a perverse love for harsh policies.

I think the motive of Undesireability Bias is to be seen as a very smart and analytical person, willing to propose harsh policies as the result of careful analysis and deep thought.

Motto: I am smart enough to solve the problem and am willing to be seen as harsh by people of lesser analytical ability.

john hare writes:

Randall,
I followed your links and found them interesting. It could be because they confirm the biases that I already have.

I am an employer in construction and we have an increasing problem getting qualified help in what most would consider non-skilled work. One of the root causes that I see are the low level checks we do that many can't pass including Drivers Licence, Drug test, and Felony record, all of which disqualify people from working for this company. 30-40 years ago we could use these people.

A second root cause I see is the failure of many low/non skilled people to try moving forward. Many seem to think that they should get higher wages even before they learn anything. "I'll sit home before I'll work like that for $10.00 an hour." is a normal statement. So they never start and therefore never move up to multiples of that wage with increasing skill. Another is the idea that they are on the bottom rung and can't move up anyway, so why try. I've been in hiring mode for a year and found that qualified people are already working, and unqualified are just that and seemingly determined to remain so. It is my opinion that most unqualified people could change their status in weeks with just a little change in attitude and opportunity.

Anon. writes:

I believe the line of thinking is the following: there is a social cost to believing socially undesirable ideas, therefore anyone willing to bear that cost probably has the truth on their side (because nobody lies to be unpopular).

Obviously this can be taken too far.

ThomasH writes:

I think what you have said about the use of fossil fuels may social undesirability bias. [I am taking your recommendation of "The Case for Fossil Fuels" as agreement with the thesis.] I'm not the first to point out that pretending Oxford debate style that humanity would be better off if fossil fuels had all remained in the ground is a silly issue to refute even if you can find someone who actually holds that position.

There is an issue about whether humanity in the long run say in 100 - 200 years would be better off if today we put in place incentives -- something like a carbon tax -- to emit less CO2 into the atmosphere (and remove some of what's there). The issue is a marginal change. Is the CO2 concentration greater than the optimum. That ought not be difficult for economists to understand.

There is social desirability and undesirability bias on every issue and we are all subject to them. C S Lewis one said something like, when Satan wants to harm us (always) he send two opposed falsehoods into the world so that those who reject one will come to believe the other. We have to do our best to find and go through the eye of the needle between the falsehoods. Personally I find the economists' idea of optimum which is similar to the Golden Mean to be the best way to do this.

Glen Smith writes:

Not certain why people seem to think that automation will directly effect low-iq people. I can see an indirect issue as those withmid-level iqs and those with high moral standards are automated out on jobs. Maybe people don't realize that tasks easiest to automate seem to be the hardest ones for humans while the easiest for us to do are some of the most difficult.

RPLong writes:

For me, personally, this blog post will be one that will stick with me a long time. Well said.

It reminds me of a claim I read elsewhere, that sometimes people form tribal groups because those tribes serve to reinforce their own projected image. So, for example, the PUA/red pill crowd like to congregate together because that way no one questions their self-declarations of being "alpha males." After all, they're all saying the same thing - it's only the "betas" who question "the truth."

Just an excellent, excellent post, BC.

Ben Kennedy writes:

Sometimes I feel that some of the stronger anti-state Libertarian rhetoric falls into this category. One can easily immerse themselves in the opinion that not only is government incompetent, it is essential merciless gang of thieves that parasitizes society etc etc. Of course there is some truth to this position, e.g. the insights of public choice theory. However, the case is regularly overstated - I'm pretty sure the nice lady in the children's section of my local library is not an evil parasite (and most policemen are perfectly nice people as well)

Nathan W writes:

"If your go-to solution to social problems is to kill people, sterilize them, or trap them in a war zone, you are not seeing the world clearly."

I think this can easily be filed into the "should shout it out from the rooftops" category.

Just imagine the kind of world it would lead to. According to someone or another, you're always next, due to shortcoming ABCEDF or G.

_____________

Anon - "I believe the line of thinking is the following: there is a social cost to believing socially undesirable ideas, therefore anyone willing to bear that cost probably has the truth on their side (because nobody lies to be unpopular)."

I think this might be true in a lot of cases, but I think that, for a fair few people who fancy themselves quite smart but in fact are not at all, this sort of thinking helps to feed their notion that "everyone is stupid except for me", and things like "I am one of those rare people of strong character which is willing to stand up for ideas which are unpopular, but correct."

I think quite a lot of people in the anti-PC crowd fit into this category. While PC can go too far, and quash some areas of legitimate debate, it seems to me that the anti-PC people are usually just looking for a cover to justify their blatantly mysoginist or racist views, using precisely the sort of reasoning that you describe, so that they can paint themselves as smarter and stronger than those stupid PC people. My usual solution to this type of situation is to show them how they would make their argument if they were not mysoginist or racist.

Ben - love the example of the nice lady in the children's section of the library :)

YS writes:

Isn't undesirability bias just a form of signalling (much like Desirability Bias)?

RohanV writes:

Does this apply to Libertarianism?

After all, Libertarianism is pretty socially undesirable, especially among women. Libertarians are rarely seen in a positive light, being thought of a heartless and naive. Mention that you like Ayn Rand in any normal setting, and see how well that goes.

So then, following Caplan's logic, libertarians exhibit a major form of Social Undesirable Bias, gravitating to views which sound awful to normal people. Clearly they are doing so *because* these views are socially undesirable, rather than any inherent value in those views.

To be honest, this started out as a joke comment, extending Caplan's thesis to his own philosophy. However, I think it actually does explain the behavior of a lot of libertarians. I've often thought that Caplan takes a lot of outré positions for the sake of being outré.

BorrowedUsername writes:

I was thinking about bets and another interesting factor in betting on views is coming up with agreed upon terms. Quite often a bet will fail to happen because people cannot agree on the outcome they are measuring. But this means that their disagreement is probably much smaller than it seems if they're not willing to disagree on the other's outcome.

MikeDC writes:

How can one say that "we spend too much on X". De gustibus non est disputandum. What do we not spend enough on? And how is terrorism (or crime in general) unlike, say, vaccination against disease. Measles isn't statistically significant problem because we spend a lot so it's not a problem. If we spent nothing fighting measles, it would be a big problem.

In any case, I think if there is such a thing as social undesirability bias, it's pretty natural. To illustrate the point, suppose you're growing up in North Korea. Outside of obviously verifiable facts like "the sky is blue", I suppose the natural tendency might be to think the opposite of whatever line the state sponsored news is spouting.

Obviously we shouldn't go to that extreme, but it's the same contrarian impulse to test extreme, and too good to be true sounding propositions. If someone tells me there's no downside to something, I'm usually right to be skeptical

Randall Parker writes:

John Hare, The fact that more people are getting stuck at minimum wage even when they are working suggests that the bigger problem is that some of them (I'm guessing the lower IQ ones) do not have a way up from the basic entry level jobs.

Automation has hit most heavily the middle income jobs. I think this has shifted a lot of 95-110 IQ people down market to compete with the lower IQ people in low wage jobs. That's hard on the low IQ people.

The other thing going on: the welfare state makes it easier for people to not work. But I do not see that as the biggest factor since the number of people not moving up from minimum wage jobs is increasing even as min wage has stagnated for years in most jurisdictions.

I expect the employment prospects for lower IQ people to become much worse as the capabilities of robots advance. Work requiring great manual dexterity is going to fall to advances in robotics in the next 10 years or so. We'll enter an era of much greater make-work and guaranteed income.

george strong writes:

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