Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Risk and Reliability

In Dr. Haidt's first TED talk (link in "The Problem with Dr. Haidt), he identified a personality trait that is closely aligned with liberalism: openness to experience. This is defined as a range of behaviors like high aesthetic sensitivity (you enjoy art to a greater-than-average degree), intellectual curiosity, and desire for variety; these traits are statistically known to be found in the same people and thus form a package deal. There are personality types high and low on openness to experience, with most people falling somewhere in the middle.

I started to wonder if there was a different trait that describes conservatives. If you Google "openness to experience" then you will find that low levels correlate with political conservatism and "authoritarian, ethnocentric, and prejudiced views," which is a good definition of liberal evil, but I don't think that adequately sums up the inverse attitude. There are some very, very rational reasons why a conservative outlook makes sense and liberal one, complete with Epicurean desire for new experiences, does not. What trait sums up the positive characteristics of the conservative mind?

Haidt was close in his TED talk when he talked about conservatives recognizing that social order was a precious thing that people should value, but he didn't quite encapsulate the attitude so much as try to give liberals a brief pause before they went back to unconsciously trying to undermine it. Then a term hit me from economics, one that I always liked, that characterized conservatism in a better way: loss aversion.

Underrated Good Sense

In economic talk, loss aversion is the tendency for people to prefer avoiding losses to realizing gains. Economists sometimes dislike loss aversion, because in raw number terms, it is irrational; it means that it hurts more to lose a hundred bucks than to realize a hundred dollar windfall. The tendency increases with the stakes: you might be willing to bet $5 on a flip of a coin for the possibility of winning $5, just for kicks, but you probably won't bet your $150,000 house on that same coin flip, even for the possibility of winning $150,000. This is, in strictest economic terms, inefficient; loss aversion causes people to pass up opportunities for gain where their odds of success are fairly good. 

But that's theory. Then you have reality: if you gamble your house on a coin flip, almost no amount of potential gain will keep you from looking like a dumbass. If you lose, which you would have a 50% chance of doing, you will be homeless and your life could very nearly be ruined. Taking chances on such things so you can realize outsize gains is moronic. Working for your gains like you aren't a moral delinquent is the obviously better way to create wealth from a standpoint of social order and productivity. I wonder how closely this intuition correlates with the Christian dictum to not be greedy and to avoid gambling.

As a larger point, over-valuing potential gains is hardly different from under-valuing the present situation. If you really value not being homeless, and you don't expect someone else to cover your losses, then you will not want to risk the house, and rightfully so. While it might be easy to paint conservatives as curmudgeons out to thwart your enjoyment of life, there is just as likely to be a measure of awareness involved, where they know that the present situation has value and know it can be lost if care is not taken.

I think much of the conservative attitude could be encapsulated by having an attitude towards risk that holds back from being desperate for change, and can find the positives in predictable routine. Material welfare, after all, is relative; adjusting your standards to having more doesn't necessarily make you any happier. When conservatives take chances, they are necessary chances where they do everything they can to improve their own odds. Staying in control is ingrained in them; it's part of taking responsibility, empowerment done right.

Overrated Immaturity

Most of us have known individuals high on openness to experience, and have probably learned to get annoyed by them. For them, questions of how much worse things could be hardly pop up, while there is a constant level of attention to how much better things could be. These are the kind of people who romanticize going for it all. They prefer living in cities where there is always something to do, and have high material lifestyle standards. Work is expected to be more a fulfilling creative activity than a job. They often see wealth as something to be consumed, not invested. They see something interesting, they want to jump in. Life is to be enjoyed, with stimulating sensations and living every minute to its fullest. They open their doors to all, non-judgmentally interested in everyone in their particular postal district. They push the kind of attitude where cost is no object. They want a good deal, maximum utility for minimum sacrifice. And because they see themselves as nice people, they want everyone to have that.

Everyone throws caution to the wind a few times in their life, but let's be honest about the assumptions that go along with some of this behavior. First and most importantly, you have to assume that you can trust people almost invariably. This results in taking tremendous levels of social good for granted. They give little thanks for military, police, or judicial system protection. They assume the best out of people, except for authority figures. Conservatives are more likely to demand that trust be earned, and with good reason. They are more likely to push for a set social standard of behavior instead of letting people do whatever and shrugging at the inevitable conflicts of interest that come with that. They know that understood duties and expectations work better than being lax in the name of individuality. The conservative does not want to accept the lowest common denominator in a culture they have invested themselves in. Meanwhile, the liberal will tolerate anything, and passionately defend the delinquents from the harshness of paying dues.

There's a deep childishness to this; it is the kind of lifestyle usually made possible when the parents are still cleaning up your mess. Some conservatives have started calling this moral adolescence, and it fits.

These people are consuming their world, and even the most appropriate fear of instability or consequence-creating failure seems to be far from their minds. They might be really entertaining party guests, but do they know that they're cashing out decades or centuries' worth of social capital as they refuse to grow up and make it clear that doing so is a valid lifestyle option to everyone watching?

People who expect to be able to live in search of new experiences take risks, but do they recognize them? They certainly expect businesses, government, and basically everyone they surround themselves with to treat them with consideration, regardless of whether that expectation is rational or not. I would guess that "buyer beware" is a harsh thing to say here; they would rather the buyer not have to beware, that someone beware for them. Their reliance on systems of accountability is extreme, but if anything, they demonize those in that system. They are also the first people to demonize the familiar and glorify the mysterious and unknown, often without any reason to do so. This is related deeply to a drive towards new experiences and newness itself.

New is good from this perspective. Change is good, too; the present is imperfect and dreary. If you live this shallowly, then your old age is not going to treat you well, when you are wrinkly and broken down and boring. Society used to push people to build credit for themselves, so they could cash in at this point: Commitments like family, community, long-term loyalty to work and in your relationships that requires strong self-discipline and reliability - and appreciation of reliability - made the thing work from generation to generation. But are these types up for it? It makes a difference, because we are producing an awful lot of these people, and they will come to those who have invested expecting help later on. Their moral code is exactly that simple-minded, pushing endless and undiscriminating compassion with no way to justify using punishment effectively.

Since openness to experience is an inborn trait and somewhat equally distributed among people, one wonders about society's attitudes and how they became so much more permissive over the last half century. The obvious answer is, because the cultural incentives have changed. Traits that used to be associated with simple good character - steadfast loyalty, hard work, investment - seem to be pushed now as a way to build wealth and live the high life, instead of being the standard that others simply expected in order to receive respect. If anything, acting right gets promoted only as a lifestyle preference. Can a society survive where character is an option instead of a necessity? And do those who find such a society acceptable really need to have moral authority?

No comments:

Post a Comment