The Emperor's New Clothes: a story of motivated stupidity

post by David Hugh-Jones (david-hugh-jones) · 2021-11-20T13:24:14.009Z · LW · GW · 5 comments

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One day, the all-wise Emperor decided to test the perspicacity of his advisers, and he announced that he was having a new set of clothes made.

When the Imperial Clothing Advisory Group was brought in to see the finished product, there was an awkward silence. The Group’s Secretary, a recently promoted poetaster, paused. His eyes shifted around the room.

“Aren’t they fabulous?” said the Emperor. “What do you think of the trimming?”

The Secretary swallowed. The wrong remark might not only dissolve the Group, but subject its members to Chiseling.

The Emperor gave a twirl. Surely he couldn’t think….

“Magnificent!” said Du Yu.

Robe of the Qianlong emperor. Photograph by uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The cheers at the Emperor’s parade were more muted than usual. Those at the back couldn’t see what was going on, and most were raucously drunk on the customary freebies of rice wine. At the front, though, there seemed to be some puzzlement. Murmurs ran through the crowd, dying down in the face of the bodyguard’s ferocious glares.

At this time there lived in the city a naughty little boy, who spent much of his time with street urchins, being treated as a pet by the courtesans of the vilest quarter, and learning to compose lecherous verses. The sources neither confirm nor disprove that this was the future Li Bai. It is only known that he was usually dirty and unkempt, and always shameless. He now stepped out in front of the Emperor, and into legend.

“You’ve got no clothes on,” said Li Bai truculently. A guard with a whip stepped forward. “Halt!” said the Emperor. “Let him through.” Li Bai marched towards the Palanquin. “You’ve got no clothes on,” he repeated, cocking his head.

A gasp, and louder murmurs, ran through the crowd.

The Emperor sighed. The Advisory Group was an entirely useless body, but it kept his brother-in-law safely occupied as its Chair. A loss of face might stir him up to become annoying, or even positively risky. The Emperor’s hand ran abstractedly over his chest hair.

“You see,” he announced, “the depths of foolishness to which a poor orphan may sink in this cesspit of vice! But the Emperor is merciful. Take this child in to the Schools, that Learning may temper his audacity.”

“You know you’re naked,” hissed Li Bai furiously. “Why can’t you admit it?”

“Kid,” muttered the Emperor, “when you reach my age….”

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a story of motivated stupidity.

Noone in the Advisory Group can point out the obvious, because they fear bringing punishment on themselves or the other members of the group.

The Emperor himself can’t admit the obvious, because to do so would upset a carefully balanced social arrangement, of which he is not the complete master.

Beliefs are not only held by individuals. They are also used by groups, up to entire societies, as a means of working together. Just as a belief can guide an individual’s actions across many situations, so, when we need to act in concert with others, a shared belief can coordinate a group’s actions across many situations.

If we accept the common idea of a belief as a “sentence stored in the head”, then shared beliefs may even be the primary phenomenon, and individual beliefs just a spinoff. Individual expectations needn’t be stored in linguistic form: you can have a feeling about which horse will win the race, without thinking up a sentence about it. Language only becomes useful when you need to get other people to agree.

Individual expectations can be updated in the light of new evidence. Humans may do that wrong in all sorts of ways, but they at least always have a reason to do it. More accurate expectations lead directly to better choices.

When collective beliefs meet new evidence, the most sensible thing to do is often ignore it. If you think the Emperor is naked, and everyone else is acting as if he isn’t, you get no benefit from stepping out of line. Even if you think everyone else can see the Emperor is naked, it is still risky to say so. Even if you think everyone else thinks that, and also thinks you think so, that is still no help unless you’re sure they are going to act on it.

An entire society may stand to benefit, and may know that it would, from changing its collective beliefs in the light of new evidence, and still the prospective chaos and disruption of the change may be enough to stop that happening.

Who cares which way some heavenly body moves? If the earth is not the centre of the universe, that threatens the authority of the Pope, which really matters.

Contemporary social science has done a lot of work to show how individuals can be stupid. There are long lists of human biases. Groups like the rationalists try to weed out their own biases, or look for tricks to minimize their effects.

But as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, ignorance is hardest to eradicate when someone’s breakfast depends on it. Individual dumbness is worth getting rid of. Collective stupidity’s future is assured. It pays for itself.


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comment by James_Miller · 2021-11-20T14:36:20.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Emperor's New Clothes should be taught to autistic children who have IQs above, say, 90 with the lesson that "normal" people sometimes realize that the Emperor is naked, and sometimes come to truly believe he is clothed, but "normal" people almost always get very mad at anyone who correctly points out that the Emperor is naked.  Being autistic can give you the superpower of caring more about truth than social acceptability.  Use your power, but understand its personal cost.  

On a personal note, being autistic is likely why I had the "courage" to be one of the three at my college to speak on the record with a New York Times reporter about political correctness at my workplace.  A discussion with the reporter starts at 5.10 on this podcast, and this is the NYT article.

Replies from: Maxwell
comment by Maxwell · 2021-11-21T09:07:55.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since this comment is being upvoted, I have to ask, how would being autistic affect your decision-making in that situation?

I think (incorrectly?) that everyone, except maybe children and drunk people, would remain quiet, and would either get angry or not depending on what they care about and models of the situation that vary from person to person.

I mean, think of everything that would need to go wrong in order to scream “The emperor is naked!”:

They would need to be certain about what is going through the emperor’s mind. It seems more likely that the emperor is drunk than him being a nudist. You don’t know how a drunk person with so much power would react, so the best action is not to speak.

Even if they thought it was safe, it is obvious to everyone that the emperor is naked, screaming would not give any new information.

And even it they thought that it would be informative, how do they expect it to lead to good outcomes? Because it would increase their social status or decrease the emperor’s? That seems like something that autism would make less likely.

And after hearing him say that he thinks he is clothed, they might get angry if they care a lot about not lowering the emperor’s status, or they might pretend to be angry so that the child doesn’t put himself in potential danger again or to receive whatever benefits come from siding with the man in power. Everyone else would just find the situation amusing.

Replies from: James_Miller
comment by James_Miller · 2021-11-21T12:52:00.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Me at age 25 (who didn't know he was autistic) "I will say the emperor is naked.  Other people will like me more after I have said the emperor is naked.  That girl who I asked out yesterday and who said, 'I'm busy maybe some other time' might now agree to go on a date with me.  I believe other people will like me more because I model other peoples' thinking on my own and I would have greater respect for someone else who says that the emperor is naked."

Me at age 54 (who does know he is autistic).  "I really, really want to say the emperor is naked.  I get this will cause most other people to think less of me.  I emotionally believe that I should not care about anyone who would think less of me for saying the emperor is naked, but I intellectually know this isn't true.  I'm also aware that most other people would have some natural trepidation against saying the emperor is naked that I, being very weird, have inverted.  This inversion can cause me to fail at social signaling games and hinder progress towards my goals.  But I so very much want to say he is naked that I'm going to do it unless I can convince myself that the costs of doing so are very high and being a tenured professor means I probably won't suffer too much by being honest in this case, and I have succeeded in having a few friends who would not abandon me for saying the emperor is naked.  Indeed one such friend has a blog post up saying that the emperor is not only naked but also mentally defective".

comment by rosyatrandom · 2021-11-22T10:03:33.800Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would expect the situation to be analogous to any situation that requires large socio-economic upheaval but 'punishes' individuals who try to start the ball rolling.

cough Climate Change Crisis cough

Myopic vested interests and inertia will scupper the needed changes, even if almost everyone acknowledges their necessity in principle.

comment by maximkazhenkov · 2021-11-20T16:35:47.256Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Moloch reigns, as usual.