Battle Cry Against Moloch
Muhammad Ali used to throw punches in the void as a way to practice, as if boxing with his own shadow. He may not have invented that shtick, but he made it famous. Similarly, we all battle against our self on a regular basis. We do things we’re not entirely proud of, cut corners when nobody’s watching. We curse our frailties, lament some of our inclinations, roll our eyes at our repeated mistakes. In short, we practice shadowboxing. With its slew of unconscious biases, each deeply rooted in the survival imperative, the self often is our main opponent.
The individual can also either be in harmony with society or work against it. Economists have scrutinized in detail what leads to one or the other. When there is a misalignment between individual incentives and the collective good, they use various terms such as “tragedy of the commons”, “prisoner’s dilemma”, or the “free-rider problem”: it emerges in any game where players’ defective strategies dominate their cooperative ones, even if it makes all players worse off. Scott Alexander (SA) has a more poetic way to refer to those coordination traps; he personifies them as Moloch, in reference to beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s poem Howl. Moloch, an ancient god to whom you can sacrifice what you love in exchange for power. SA interprets Moloch as the evil twin of the Invisible Hand: the demon of the narrow-minded Libertarians, the Nash equilibrium incarnate, the eternal mover of goalposts, the shortcut whisperer, the idiot god that feasts on utopias, etc. Although Elinor Ostrom, in her brilliant book Governing the Commons, tempers SA’s pessimism, it nevertheless is arguably the major problem civilization has to reckon with. And in the limit of technology, when the power of one rivals the power of the whole, and individual optimization becomes an existential threat to all, how then do we walk this edge? As we turn ourselves into gods, but still slaves to unchanged incentives, where does the riverbed of our fixed biology lead to? What is the endgame of our programming, fine-tuned for other times, other places?
SA places his hopes of mankind escaping a dreadful fate on our creating a superintelligence and establishing it as the ultimate Monarch that cares about human values and therefore kills Moloch, a superintelligent Unincentivized Incentivizer (you really need to read his meditations to fully grasp this monstrous tl;dr). Now I’m not planning to debate the merits of this “solution” to Moloch… This logic runs on too cosmic a scale. What I’m interested in here, at the risk of pushing the metaphor, is the little Molochs — skull-enclosed, not society-wide — , the small-scale traps we fall into, the micro failures of coordination, the mundane glitches that make us get each other wrong again and again, and then some again. We all carry a little “Moloch” in our heads. Whenever we find “an opportunity to trade off a useful value for greater competitiveness”, as SA says, that’s when we get a glimpse of Moloch.
I’m talking about our myriad internal conflicts of interest. Those moments in the back alleys of our minds where we compromise the common good for greater competitiveness, making everyone more miserable in the process. We routinely throw bits of reason into Moloch’s furnace in exchange for evolutionary advantage. We’ve developed habits of mind that benefit us but spoil the game for everyone else. Annie Duke (AD) in her book Thinking in Bets emphasizes one such trap: resulting, or the asymmetry in how we field good and bad outcomes, depending on if they’re ours or other people’s. In others, bad outcomes are blamed on bad decision-making, and good outcomes are chalked up to luck. In ourselves, bad outcomes are pinned on chance while good outcomes are heralded as proof of skill. Such self-serving narratives surely were optimized for, yet distort reality for everyone else. By speaking to reality in this way, we’re polluting the minds around us. And in our hyperinformation age, when most of our time is spent consuming and regurgitating information, this marginally drives everyone a tiny bit crazier.
Take another example: hindsight bias. Once the future becomes past, of all the possible futures, only one is picked, no matter how likely it was in the first place, and by standing alone in the past now, it looms much larger than warranted, looks more inevitable than it actually was. The past is an editorialized future. And so people who dislike an outcome of decision-making will tend to place much more blame on the decision-makers for the outcome because they simply forget or ignore the could’ve-beens. AD likens this process to chopping branches off a tree: the trunk is the past, the branches the possible future, the present where they meet. As the present moves through time, a branch is picked, and all the other branches are mercilessly sawed off. This is why Nate Silver was unjustly ridiculed in 2016 for predicting a Hillary win despite giving Trump a pretty significant 30–40% chance of victory. What came to be was not inevitable, yet commentators make it so (and in their forgetfulness they sometimes show gleeful cruelty), because that is power. It increases the legibility of what happens. It molds events. Throwing truth under the bus to get that extra edge!
The irony of it all is that, the smarter you are, the greater your skills at fitting narratives, and the more you’ll exploit it. Those “psychological blind spots” really are optimizations: they developed because they conferred some evolutionary advantage. For instance, it’s fairly well-established that the more intelligent you are, the more likely to succumb to confirmation bias. In the savanna, false positives are way cheaper than false negatives, hence the bias. Smart people nowadays just turbocharge that natural slope present in everyone’s character, exploit the bias with their superior skills to rationalize prior discursive commitments. Psychologists also call it “motivated reasoning” and Julia Galef gave an excellent talk about it (she prefers the term “warrior mindset”, as opposed to the “scout mindset”, solely bent on uncovering Truth). Smart people have the same basic need as less smart people to see themselves and be seen in a good light (“confirmation”, in a broad sense), but they have greater resources to bend anecdotes and enlist patterns to buttress the story they tell themselves and others. That’s all intelligence can control though. The calibration of the need to look good remains outside its sphere of influence. That is for wisdom to take on, and wisdom is accessible to all, not just the cognitive elite. In the meantime, so much brain power wasted on defending the wrong thoughts… again pushing us ever slightly into madness.
Another one of those optimizations cum blind spots is overconfidence. Somehow, display of confidence has come to be conflated with correctness and even righteousness, thereby conferring evolutionary advantage (or is it the other way around?). And like everything in the realm of psychology, when the manifest is used to infer the hidden, the higher the intelligence, the more adept at controlling the former to fool about the latter. That is how confidence became just another ammunition in advanced apes’ endless smoke and mirror strategies to manipulate each other. And when something can be feigned, you can be damn sure the psychologically astute will wield that weapon to get ahead. I’m not arguing here that such blind spots have become liabilities in the modern world — I believe they still provide individual advantages. I’m arguing that they increase systemic risk. That’s where Moloch shines. Moloch cutting corners yet again! Arms race of overconfidence! Race to the black-and-white bottom! Binarization of all probabilities!
Catastrophizing constitutes yet another one of those “blind spots”, or traps, or whatever you want to call them. Exaggerating the negative consequences of an event is a subtle way of signaling not only how in the know you are, but also, as the one foreseeing the apocalypse, how indispensable you are. It is a self-importance boosting mechanism. The other day, Supreme Court justice RBG regrettably passed away. Some excessively smart people immediately went full Cassandra: war will happen! Really? You must be so smart, seeing so many chess moves ahead! Picking up such subtle tells in the poker game of Life! And here we go again, all of us overindexing on catastrophes as a result. How much of the culture wars is due to people idiotically optimizing for social status, cutting corners, polluting the thoughts we think, the representations we make of our shared reality?
Be smart, but not too smart.
So, can we fight our programming? Let’s channel AD…
Embrace uncertainty. Make it second nature to speak probabilistically. Start from a place of not being sure, as AD puts it. Think of every statement as a calibrated bet. Expressing uncertainty is an invitation for data sharing, an openness to education, a diffusion of confrontational dissent — a true public good! It’s a statement about the fallacy of black-and-white, 100%-or-0%, all-or-nothing.
Reward process, not outcomes. Tie your self-worth to things you can control (process! analysis! decision-making!), not to things you cannot control (outcomes). It’ll make you more equanimous. So many variables go into outcomes! The Stoics said little more than that. When you attach your self-worth to things you cannot control, you will inevitably disfigure things, try to distort or spin reality… in short, you’ll start playing politics (ew!). Within your group, learn to reward process, and to ignore outcomes, good or bad, as irrelevant. Such an attitude will allow you and your peers to naturally gravitate toward successful truth-seeking behavior, disinterested debate, and productive, organized skepticism, as opposed to echo-chamber self-abuse.
In times of seemingly unresolvable political polarization, in an age where our inner Molochs run wild, where the profit motive hijacks and amplifies our evolutionary outdated reward loops, where the minds idiotically optimize and turn America’s cognitive landscape into a dump, it is time to go upstream. We need to be good monarchs to our minds.
I was once asked if I have a motto, some guiding principle in life. Without much thinking, I blurted out, don’t be a slave. It might seem weird to have a negative proposition as life motto, but, first, a positive statement would mean you claim to know the Truth, whereas a negative leaves things open-ended; and second, the richness of this motto keeps revealing itself to me in many ways: from the distortionary effects of economic dependence, to the cultivation of antifragility, to the nobility of overcoming our programming. This is not a naive fetishization of self-sovereignty, as there is such a thing as chosen, enhancing bonds. This is a battle cry against Moloch.