Comparing up and down
Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy… I was on an airplane and there was internet, high speed internet on the airplane… I’m watching YouTube clips; it’s amazing… then it breaks down and they apologize: ‘the internet is not working’. And the guy next to me goes ‘pah! this is bullshit!’ …
Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going: “Oh my God, wow!” … you’re sitting in a chair in the sky! …People say ‘there’s delays on flights’ - delays? Really? New York to California in 5 hours! That used to take 30 years and a bunch of you would die on the way there…
we do not notice absolute changes in stimuli; we notice relative changes. Which leads to an answer to the question above: the error that needs to be reduced in the brains of organisms such as ourselves is not absolute error, but relative error.
When deciding whether a situation is good or bad, you can compare up (to a superior reference class) or compare down.
A key finding of the behavioural and psychological sciences is that humans don’t take absolute measurements (naturally). Instead we find some similar object and judge things relative to it. This is why anchoring, framing effects (etc) work on us, when they shouldn’t. Most importantly: we seem to judge value this way too. The tantalising possibility is that we can create value for free, by merely changing our framing.
To have gratitude for 𝑥 is to compare down to a world where you don’t have it.
Clinical trials with placebo controls are comparing down, to (roughly) nothing; clinical trials with reference treatment controls are comparing up.
Comparing between people is difficult: too much varies (energy; aptitude; lottery of fascinations) and ordering them is anyway risky. Better to compare up to your personal best, or down to your past self.
“It’s just a drop in the ocean” is comparing up, to having solved the entire problem all at once. This is very useful for correcting people who think their ineffective policy is amazing (recycling, say). David Mitchell: “Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?“
One of the strongest ways to make me realise my good fortune is checking my ‘temporal privilege’. In many ways it is better to be a minimum-wage worker now than to be Julius Caesar, or King Croesus in their time. There’s no amount of money you could give me to live in the year 1700 even. (It’s far larger than the other privileges.)
When people (or I myself) complain about the tedium or inauthenticity of white-collar jobs, I retort, “But think of how painful and miserable and cold and hungry and scared and ignorant our ancestors were! Your problems are small on the long view, and in such a rich society there is an alternative”. (Gwern’s calculation is not prudential: it is a tool to force you to realise your freedom and your luck.)
When rating my own posts’ importance, I compare up to the most important possible work: the one that discusses how to preserve value until the far reaches of the future, over trillions of years. If I compared down, to an average social media status update, then my scores would be much higher.
When I play saxophone I often feel frustration at not sounding like Coltrane or Parker (up); but when I sing I feel joy at just being able to make noise (down). I’m not sure which mindset has led to better improvement.
Picking a too-extreme reference class leads to absurd decisions. When my food is starting to go bad, I opt not to eat it – when I might instead compare down to having no food at all and a skeletal death.
Strong consequentialism (the view that it is mandatory to improve the world as much as you can) compares up, and only up, to a perfect altruist with my skills and resources. It doesn’t matter that most people do relatively little for others; it doesn’t matter if I do a lot already.
I think some part of politics reduces to this. When questions of UK social justice come up, my first thoughts are things like, “Yeah, but the British minimum wage is in the top 15% of global incomes”. I compare down to the global working class.
This is true and important, but for some purposes 2 it is also stupid, since on the sad margin of nationalist politics, giant public transfers to GiveDirectly are not on the table. Unless they are, it is true but does not help to paint the locally poor as globally rich. (Maybe some people are inefficiently rich on any reading.)
However, we have to remember that the converse – comparing up, to a better arrangement – often means making a comparison with something that doesn’t exist, never has, and may not be able to.
When it’s important to improve, you want to compare up. When it’s more important to feel good, or to just get on with it, you want to compare down. I try to do plenty of both. “Relative to the human average I’ve done a lot and know a lot.” and “On the grand scale of things, I haven’t done very much yet.” Comparing up is more natural to me, so I make an effort to recall my achievements and the base rates.
Saying “what I have is good” might reduce your drive to improve the situation. Are the two package deals 1) gratitude & de facto conservatism, or 2) aggro, envy, & progress? Yes, maybe, but we can always try to alternate. really fast.
- When does comparing down improve mood?
- Does comparing up actually lead to greater improvement?
- When does comparing down improve motivation, by making you more relaxed and self-aligned?
- When does comparing up harm mood?
- How does this fit with ideas of hedonic setpoint and the first-derivative view of welfare? (That people don't feel levels, they feel changes.)
There is some relation to Stoic philosophy and CBT too.
The idea is in the same space as growth mindset, or grit, or any number of overhyped academic rehashes of gumption.
Then there's mindfulness, which is a different claim about one's stance having strong effects on value of experience.
Better to be a subaltern in New York than the emperor of old Rome
For Julius Caesar to read a book overnight, easily move at night around his palace, or listen to the songs he liked would have required perhaps hundreds of workers (slaves) to hold the torches or sing his favorite arias all night. Even Caesar, if he were to do that night after night, might, after some time, have run out of resources (or might have provoked a rebellion among the singers).
But for us the expense for a similar pleasure is very small, even trivial, say $2 per night. Consequently, some people come to the conclusion that Caesar must have had tiny wealth measured in today’s bundle of goods since a repeated small nightly expense of $2 (in today’s prices) would have eventually ruined him. Other people at Caesar’s time had obviously much less: ergo, the world today is incomparably richer than before.
The exception is of course the dubious goods of position and domination. But I don't want these, and don't want to want them.
I like it a lot; it reflects a couple of things about human happiness. It's probably orthogonal to the reference class stuff above; instead it's another component of a good stance toward the world: looking for the good in things. There's a hint of positive-thinking woo to it — as if the world responded causally to devotion — but discard that in favour of:
- People are the loci of value; value is produced by the interface of minds with certain parts of the world; it is not written into just us or the order of things.
- No value without receptivity. Being conscious isn't enough. (I think you can sensibly distinguish 'receptivity to good' from hope, and hope from expectation.)
- Misery can destroy most of the lived world. (Ain't no sunshine; who loves the sun; I don't believe in the sun.)
(Other things I take it to not be saying: "Fake it til you make it"; "misery is the fault of the miserable"; "hope is enough to be happy".)
But how much is receptivity under our control? It will take some odd psychology work to capture that variable. Interesting political-theory discussion of being receptive as the key to most good things here. ("Ethics and Global Politics" Vol 4, No 4 (2011).)
A pig happy
An old current of thought is dead-set against it (I call it "lacrimism", to go with the ancient doctrine "deathism"). Roger Scruton can always be counted upon to piss in the beer with style: he believes that ubiquitous wonder and joy is impossible, and would make us swinish idiots, "a kind of postmodern individual" he doesn't want to be seated next to at a dinner party:
Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is... The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.
We should listen to this, but we have reason not to heed it. Not least because lacrimism is self-fulfilling: if no-one believes that it is possible to have a Good life without suffering and vice, it can never become possible. This sounds idealistic, but I think its counter-quietism is inherent to science:
the greatest enrichment the scientific culture could give us is... a moral one... scientists know, as starkly as any men have known, that the individual human condition is tragic... But what they will not admit is that, because the individual condition is tragic, therefore the social condition must be tragic, too... The impulse behind the scientists drives them to limit the area of tragedy, to take nothing as tragic that can conceivably lie within men’s will....
Scruton as Merritt's protagonist.
Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?
- The Parable of the Talents by Scott Alexander
- Choosing the Zero Point by orthonormal
- Stoicism seems to be the philosophy of constantly comparing down.
- Anything except an ideal, universalist state or other gathering.
Tags: self-help, mental-health, philosophy