Goodhart's Law and Emotions

post by Zero Contradictions · 2024-07-07T08:32:27.134Z · LW · GW · 5 comments

This is a link post for

Goodhart's Law is an important principle about using a measure to drive action, and there are many examples of Goodhart's law and its importance in human affairs. This essay focuses on how Goodhart's Law applies to human desire in the modern environment.

Emotions do not directly measure the adaptiveness of an action because they are a crude mechanism. They are heuristic, ad hoc and stimulus-dependent. Although emotions are not a direct measure of adaptiveness, they evolved to motivate adaptive behavior, and thus motivation is essentially a proxy for what is adaptive in the current situation. In modern civilization, we are gaming our emotions, thus making them a terrible measure of adaptiveness.

Imagine if the engineer viewed increasing the odometer number as the purpose of the car, and the movement of the car on the road as just a way to increase that number. He would view putting the car up on blocks as progress. That is what modern man is doing with respect to emotions and adaptiveness. He is spinning his emotional wheels and going nowhere.


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comment by JenniferRM · 2024-07-07T09:54:19.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think your condensation of that post you linked to is missing the word "superstimulus" (^f on the linked essay is also missing the term) which is the thing that the modern world adds to our environment on purpose to make our emotions less adaptive for us and more adaptive for the people selling us superstimuli (or using that to sell literally any other random thing). I added the superstimuli tag [? · GW] for you :-)

Replies from: Zero Contradictions
comment by Zero Contradictions · 2024-07-07T17:29:15.646Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. I've never heard of that word until just now.

Replies from: noggin-scratcher
comment by noggin-scratcher · 2024-07-07T19:43:25.177Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The technical meaning is a stimulus that produces a stronger response than the stimulus for which that response originally evolved.

So for example a candy bar having a carefully engineered combination of sugar, fat, salt, and flavour in proportions that make it more appetising than any naturally occurring food. Or outrage-baiting infotainment "news" capturing attention more effectively than anything that one villager could have said to another about important recent events.

comment by FlorianH (florian-habermacher) · 2024-07-07T19:47:50.693Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read this as saying we’re somehow not ‘true’ to ourselves as we’re doing stuff nature didn’t mean us to do when it originally implanted our emotions.

Indeed, we might look ridiculous from the outside, but who’s there to judge - imho, nature is no authority.

  1. Increasing the odometer may be wrong from the owner’s perspective – but why should the car care about the owner? Assume the car, or the odometer itself desires really to show a high mile count, just for the sake of it. Isn’t the car making progress if it magically could put itself on a block?
  2. In the human case: Ought we to respect any ‘owner’ of us? A God? Nature who built us? Maybe not! Whatever creates happiness – I reckon it’s one of the emotions you mean – is good, however ridiculous the means to get to that. Of course, better if it creates widespread & long-term happiness, but that’s another question.
  3. Not gaming nature’s system – what would that mean? Could it be to try to have as many children or something like that? After that this is what nature wanted to ensure when it endowed us with our proxy emotions. I’m not sure it’s better.
  4. Think exactly of the last point. Imagine we were NOT gaming nature’s original intents. Just as much as we desire sex, we’d desire to have actually the maximal number of children instead! The world would probably be much more nightmarish than it is!

Now, if you’re saying, we’re in a stupid treadmill, trying to increase our emotion of (long-term) happiness by following the most ridiculous proxy (short-term) emotions for that, and creating a lot of externalized suffering at the same time, and that we forget that besides our individual shallow ‘happiness’ there are some deeper emotional aims, like general human progress etc., I couldn’t agree more!

Or if you're saying the evolutionary market system creates many temptations that exploit small imperfections in our emotional setup to trick us into behaving ridiculous and strongly against our long-term emotional success, again, all with you, and we ought to reign in markets more to limit such things.

Replies from: NicksName
comment by NicksName · 2024-07-08T11:10:46.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your points 1, 2 and 4 rely on the assumption of hedonism, points 2, 3 and 4 rely on the assumption of altruism, the author rejects both:

3. Not gaming nature’s system – what would that mean? Could it be to try to have as many children or something like that? After that this is what nature wanted to ensure when it endowed us with our proxy emotions. I’m not sure it’s better.

Right, having as many children as possible is exactly what it means, now you can reject your natural "purpose" if you want, but it's futile, in the grand scheme of things, you will just be replaced by those who more effectively act out their natural "purpose".