You take the good, you take the bad, you take the rest, and there you have, the facts of life, the facts of life

Eszter Hargittai (the person with the hardest name in the universe to spell) asks, broadly speaking, “why are there so many internet busybodies?” (More specifically, “why are so many people fanatically about enforcing wikipedia notability, etc., rules?)

My answer: the same reason we have the appendix. Evolution is a very good local maximizer, but not a global maximizer.

My answer, comprehensibly (and admittedly loosely): it’s much easier for humans to develop (e.g., by mutation) broad and general personality traits (“punish people who deviate from social norms”) than to develop more fine-grained personality traits (“punish people who deviate from social norms unless the costs of punishing in a particular instance exceed the benefits from punishing”). Hence, we’re more likely to have, at any given moment, a population composed mainly of punishers and unpunishers than of fine-grained punishers. The punishers are people who do the useful work of enforcing important social norms (particularly those that there’s no other reason to care about, things that are malum prohibitum, solutions to coordination games), and the rest of us reward them enough to make them persist, because we need them. So there’s an equilibrium state of the population where, given the environmental need for enforced coordination equilibria, we can support some people who play the strategy “punish people who deviate from social norms,” and some (like me) who play the strategy “don’t give a flying fuck.” The punishers shout at people who run stop signs (good), but also fanatically enforce wikipedia rules (bad), and we need them.

More broadly: I find this explanation more credible than I find the usual evolutionary explanations of individual behavior. Some of that credibility doubtless comes from a bias in favor of explanations that one dreams up oneself. But there are also objective features of a good evolutionary explanation of human behavior that the standard stupid examples (Question: “Why do women like men who act like assholes?” Correct answer: “You’re deluded, idiot.” Incorrect answer: “Because a jillion years ago, men who liked to beat up people could protect their harems.”) lack.

On a casual level, the busybody story looks like how evolution behaves. The appendix analogy is important: it really tracks the idea of a local maximizer. Evolution is really good at optimizing existing features for slightly better behavior over time. It’s much less good at yanking out whole features and replacing them with others. On the other hand, the asshole men story does not look like that.

Slightly more rigorously, though still painfully general and abstract, an evolutionary explanation has two parts that need to match in a certain way. It has a vector of strategies (where each element in the vector matches a population member), and it has environmental conditions (parameters). The match between them is an equilibrium (if it’s a stable population distribution), understood (speaking very loosely here — see the classic Weibull text in evolutionary game theory for the technical details) as a state such that changes in strategy by population members don’t do better than the status quo.

The busybody story is better than the assholes story in this respect because a) the assholes story is missing the environmental conditions — the idea isn’t that asshole dating behavior is optimized to the current environment, but that it was optimized to an environment a long time ago, and some how the equilibrium is extra-strong such that the population kept the same behavior distribution even though the parameters changed (possible, but requires a higher explanatory burden), b) it’s subject to problems of multiple equilibria — we can imagine a lot of dating behaviors that could be a stable equilibrium out of the ancestral environment the people who spout that sort of story hypothesize, so we need a story about why the existing behavior came out, and c) it’s also subject to multiple possible environmental constraints. Because we haven’t directly (or even indirectly) observed the environmental constraints at play, we don’t know that the hypothesized conditions rather than some others led to the behavior we’ve seen.

(insert another disclaimer about this being hastily written in a moment of inspiration)

(Recommended reading: Weibull, noted above. Brian Skyrms’s work on the evolution of cooperation. Robert Axlerod’s, ditto. Jon Elster’s work on functional explanation.

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4 Responses to “You take the good, you take the bad, you take the rest, and there you have, the facts of life, the facts of life”

  1. Richard Says:

    You’ve offered an explanation why (some) people care about enforcing an existing rule. But I took Eszter to be asking a prior question: why did anyone advocate to bring about Wikipedia’s present deletion policies in the first place? Mere norm-enforcement can’t explain this, since at the time in question there was no such norm to enforce. People brought it about. To explain why I think we will need to examine their first-order reasons, i.e. reasons for believing that it really is a good or worthwhile policy to have.

  2. Richard Says:

    (There should be a comma after “To explain why”.)

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hmm… yes, obviously the kind of explanation I offered wouldn’t fly for that question. I’m less clear on what she was asking, but I think my version is more interesting — it seems fair to, most of the time, trust the people who created a rule in an environment like wikipedia (where there aren’t many private interests to distort matters) to accurately report their (explanatory) reasons for doing so (especially in an environment with lots of norm-enforcers to obsess about those reasons).

  4. Uncommon Priors » Rule Fetishes and Bike Nazis Says:

    [...] also something really bizarre and noteworthy in the human species — this fetish for rules.  I’ve tried to explain it before.  But it never ceases to annoy [...]

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