Bryan Caplan  

Inside the Monkey Trap

Wise Wager?... From liberalism to illiberalis...
monkey.jpgA decade ago, Robin Hanson introduced me to the metaphor of the "monkey trap":
It is said you can trap a monkey by putting a nut through a small hole in a gourd. The monkey reaches in and grabs the nut, but then his fist won't fit back through the hole. Greedy monkeys will literally let themselves be caught rather than let go of the nut.
Robin had a specific monkey trap in mind: medical spending.  Robin says we can drastically reduce medical spending without hurting health, so we should drastically reduce medical spending.  His critics often seem to agree about the effects of spending cuts, but refuse to endorse them nonetheless.  Robin says they should.
So far, no commenter on my essay seems willing to let go of the nut of effective medicine, held in the gourd of the second half of medical spending.

As an analogy, imagine you ran a software company, whose many offices had different wage levels and work cultures, with average work hours ranging from seven to fourteen per day. Surprised to see these offices were equally productive, you randomly changed wages, inducing changes in work hours. You again found offices that worked more did not produce more; after seven hours people got tired and added as many bugs as they fixed. If instead of just cutting wages to get only seven hours of work, you just told everyone "watch out for bugs," you would be in a monkey trap, refusing to let go of the nut of productive work in the gourd of extra work hours.
I like the idea of the monkey trap.  It's enlightening and funny.  But to fairly apply it, you must be mindful of three complexities.

1. It only makes sense to invoke the monkey trap if you have good evidence that, on average, the bad outweighs the good.  (Including opportunity costs, of course).  When someone objects, "The good outweighs the bad," you should dispute the claim, not joke about monkey traps.

2. Suppose you admit that the bad outweighs the good.  The monkey trap is not relevant if you're willing and able to distinguish good from bad.  After all, even if bad outweighs good by a factor of 10, why not throw away all the bad and keep all the good?

3. Suppose you admit the bad outweighs the good, and you're currently unable to distinguish good from bad.  However, you have a viable plan to acquire the knowledge you need to distinguish good from bad in the foreseeable future.  Are you stuck in the monkey trap?  Once again, no.  Why throw away the good with the bad if you'll soon be able to tell the difference?

So who genuinely is stuck in the monkey trap?  Just flip things around.  You're in the monkey trap if:

1. The bad outweighs the good.


2. You have little ability (or inclination) to distinguish bad from good.


3. You're unlikely to acquire this ability in the foreseeable future.

By this standard, I think Robin was right to tell his critics that their hands were stuck in the monkey trap.  Despite their numerous intellectual concessions, Robin's critics rarely claim to know much about wasteful spending - and don't seem like they're burning to learn more.  Instead, they want to obstruct the one viable reform on the table: cutting spending.  Why?  Social Desirability Bias is the best explanation.  Whatever the facts, "If we can help just one sick person, we should spend whatever it takes," sounds vastly better to psychologically normal humans than "Let's stop wasting taxpayer money." 

COMMENTS (5 to date)
jc writes:

One question worth pondering is the value of Social Desirability Bias (SDB).

In a discrete, linear analysis, SDB often prevents folks from adopting logical, rational, efficiency-enhancing positions. It makes us look like stubborn, stupid sheep. It's a collective monkey trap.

Shift up/out to a more holistic, systemic, big-picture/long-run perspective, though, and it's possible that the Big-Picture "Good" that comes from SDB outweighs the localized Bad.

Example: Assume that during our formative years as a species, societies that were all on the same page out-competed those that weren't, e.g., unified tribes conquered splintered tribes, unified tribes grew due to specialization/division of labor/trade outcomes while splintered tribes didn't work together as well, etc.

Maybe the sheer, brute logic of tribalism - whether it's as simple as 3 of us can kill 1 of you, or a more complicated story involving mass cooperation - is (or was) far more important than many of us give it credit for being.

Maybe being on the same page is far more important than "truth", when believing a falsehood doesn't result in our death (e.g., we should all eat that poison). Maybe heretics must be publicly burned at the stake, because having truth/logic/evidence on their side means that they're especially dangerous when it comes to their ability to undermine tribal unity.

Maybe this is why tribal urges - much like breathing, eating, mating, etc. - are urges in the first place, i.e., when something is vital and pretty darn generalizable, it gets offloaded to instinct (e.g., we don't have to think and continually "decide", on the basis of logic, to breathe).

Maybe during our formative years (whether one believes in natural selection, a designer of whatever simulation we live in, etc.), it was really quite simple: those w/o an extremely strong tribal urge, an urge strong enough to prioritize the tribe over truth, logic, self (often), etc., didn't make it. We didn't descend from them (or people like that never actually existed in the first place, i.e., we were "designed" to be tribal, we were tribal as monkeys before we ever became human, etc.).

It's easy to see why things that make no sense and can be infuriating in a local, linear, sense might make sense when one zooms out to see the big picture, i.e., it's almost akin to graduating from Intelligence to Wisdom.

The question - if most/all of the above speculation is true to a meaningful degree, and not just garbage - may, then, be whether Savannah Principle logic, with respect to mismatched current versus formative environments, apply.

Has stuff that was once so useful that it was mandatory to survive become obsolete, hardwired baggage from long ago that's actually counterproductive today?

jc writes:

Put more succinctly, perhaps SDB is a mandatory side-effect of something that is (or was) more important than saving some money here or there.

Maybe (a million "maybe"s, I know...) we should think about whether "is" or "was" is true, before we can determine what the proper course of action is.

(Fwiw, I think this may explain why so many on the U.S. left, today, are acting like ants whose mound has just been stomped on. Trump isn't merely Rodney Dangerfield invading Caddyshack's Country Club. He's openly undermining every sacred dogma they've got, dogmas that keep the tribe unified. To their subconscious, his stunning degree of willful, almost gleeful tribal noncomformity really does threaten their literal existence. An existence that's far more important than this or that potential added bit of efficiency.)

J Storrs Hall writes:

To get rid of a coyote, do the following:
1. Lower a rope from a helicopter.
2. The coyote will bite it and hang on. (Presumably this is a pack behavior related to bringing down large animals.)
3. Rise to 500 feet and cut the rope.

The difference between this and the monkey is that the monkey’s behavior can be cast as selfish stupidity. The coyote’s is self-sacrifice for the good of the pack.

Jim Ancona writes:

jc, isn't "is" or "was" the key question? If SDB is key to keeping whatever social cohesiveness we still have, that's one thing. But if it's just an obsolete remnant of out hunter-gather past, then good riddance.

Thaomas writes:

"Let's stop wasting taxpayer money on health care" is fine if there is something specific behind that. Stop wasting it how and where and when?

I think the analogy is "deregulation." In a regulator environment as complicated as the US government there have to be thousands of regulations whose costs outweigh benefits. How to find them? Imposing large identifiable costs on specific interests should not create a presumption that the regulation in question is bad.

"Hey, the coal industry really does not like being told it cannot dump stuff in creeks" is a perfectly good way to decide whether to consider removing that regulation. Consider, not remove. And the consideration should in principle allow for the conclusion that "We're still allowing too much stuff to be dumped" as well as "We should allow more stuff to be dumped."


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