Why do we refuse to take action claiming our impact would be too small?

post by hookdump · 2020-02-10T19:33:02.632Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 15 comments

This is a question post.

Contents

  But the only reason the government needs to ban cell phones is that the world is full of irresponsible people who need to be coerced into doing the right thing!
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  Answers
    17 Vaniver
    16 johnswentworth
    10 ChristianKl
    5 Stuart Anderson
    4 Dagon
    2 remizidae
    1 leggi
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15 comments

I've seen this often in problems like climate change or animal exploitation:

"The solution is up to others. The powerful. The governments. The policy makers."

In this way people frequently delegate their share of responsibility to more powerful or visible entities.

To illustrate with an hypothetical example: If we suddenly found out that mobile phone frequencies destroy the planet, instead of stopping using them, many people would say:

"My actions won't make any difference. Instead it's up to the government to ban cell phones. Why should I be the fool that starts sacrificing, while everybody else keeps enjoying cell phones?"

But the only reason the government needs to ban cell phones is that the world is full of irresponsible people who need to be coerced into doing the right thing!

Does this phenomenon have a name? Does anybody here know the underlying psychological mechanism? Is it a genuine blindness about the sea being made up of millions of small droplets? An excuse to avoid responsibility? Something else?

Answers

answer by Vaniver · 2020-02-11T00:39:01.861Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Beyond normal consequentialism (as discussed in other answers), there's a game theory angle, where if you aren't trying to model a norm into existence, it's worthwhile to only follow the norm once it's agreed violators will be punished.
 
See paulfchristiano's post on Moral Public Goods [LW · GW], which argues that you will often get into situations where people would be in favor of a norm were that norm enforced, while not being in favor of the behavior the norm calls for when the norm is not enforced.

answer by johnswentworth · 2020-02-11T00:15:36.116Z · score: 16 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Everything has an opportunity cost. I'd claim that when impact is very small, it is almost always the case that the opportunity cost is not worthwhile. In general, one can have far more impact by focusing on one or two high-impact actions rather than spending the same aggregate time/effort on lots of little things.

Much more detail is in The Epsilon Fallacy [LW · GW]; also see the comments on that post for some significant counterarguments.

(I'm definitely not claiming that the psychological mechanism by which people ignore small-impact actions is to think through all of this rationally. But I do think that people have basically-correct instincts in this regard, at least when political signalling is not involved.)

answer by ChristianKl · 2020-02-11T09:54:52.974Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your example about cell phones is a prisoner dilemma. The choice to continue using the cell phone has more utility for each individual participant if they are the only person who would stop using it. At the same time it there would be higher utility for everyone, if everyone would choose cooperate in the prisoner dilemma and stop using their cell phone.

Having a government legislate that everyone picks cooperate in a prisoners dilemma is a way to solve the prisoner dilemma.

Even if a person wants to do something about a problem, it's often much more impactful to donate to an effective charity then to change personal behavior.

The recent founders pledge article on climate change that illustrates that principle for climate change. Animal Charity Evaluators might not be the most trustworthy source but when it comes to the numbers I see from EA's the same principle seems true for that area as well.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T19:46:07.544Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Even if a person wants to do something about a problem, it's often much more impactful to donate to an effective charity then to change personal behavior.

Not sure if you meant "then" or if it was a typo for "than", but either way I have an observation:

One can do both things: donate to an effective charity and change personal behavior, no?

One example I like is: vegan lifestyle vs. vegan activism.

Activism is a lot more impactful than becoming vegan oneself. By far. Because of the potential amount of people reached, and because activism can make a dent in group behavior and culture. One could even theoretically participate in activism while not even being vegan... and have more impact than a non-activist vegan!

BUT... then I pictured a scenario: All of humankind participating in vegan activism, claiming we should stop animal exploitation... while at the same time everybody eats meat. That's just a massive-scale bluff. Collective hipocrisy.

I think that example illustrates nicely the gap we need to bridge between large scale action and personal change. And this is why I believe it's ideal to avoid comparisons between large scale actions and personal actions. I claim they can and should be simultaneous.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-15T17:15:14.987Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A key concept of effective altruism is that you don't ask "what would be effective if everybody does it" but focus on tractability, neglectedness and importance when choosing your own actions.

Apart from that it's a possible feature that everybody eats meat but it's artifical grown meat for which no animal had to suffer. It's one of the approaches that the EA's I know in the field consider tractable.

answer by Stuart Anderson · 2020-02-11T13:40:00.912Z · score: 5 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Every time I have a discussion about CC I always state that the only extant solution to the problem is nuclear power. That results in me being immediately shut down for heresy.

That's why I don't give a shit about complying with the environmentalist neo-animists performative and supposedly beneficial actions. They're literally fundamentalist cultists that believe superstition is action. They might as well be praying to a tree for salvation at this point.

If there's a problem then I have no issue with implementing the solution. If there is no solution or the solution proposed is bullshit and is being pushed by idiots and grifters (Greta Thunberg, anyone?) then I'm not doing it.

Get back to me when you change your mind on nuclear power, or when you have a working fusion reactor. Otherwise I'm not going to waste my time entertaining your idiocy. I'm not ceding my authority to act to others, I'm conserving my time and effort to act with effect.

comment by TAG · 2020-02-11T16:20:04.663Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are good reasons for thinking nuclear power is part of the solution, in the short to medium term, but it's a major exaggeration to call it the only solution.

And no, not every CC proponent is anti nuclear. NASA scientist James Hansen was one of the earliest proponents of climate change and is pro nuclear.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/nuclear-power-paves-the-only-viable-path-forward-on-climate-change

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2020-02-12T13:44:52.602Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
There are good reasons for thinking nuclear power is part of the solution, in the short to medium term, but it's a major exaggeration to call it the only solution.

Part is true, unfortunately it is the part that we literally cannot replace with anything else at present.

Most people have zero idea of the scale of the problem here. How do planes fly? Cargo ships power themselves? What are roads and buildings made from? How do we turn buried bauxite into plastic coated metal sheets on a cardboard roll for wrapping your leftovers? The point is that the energy usage of the world is enormous. So many factories have dedicated train lines for bringing in coal or other fuels that you can literally browse google maps and trivially find them.

We are never going to be able to keep a kilometre of aluminium molten 24/7/365 on a production line with renewables. That's just one smelter, now times that by literally millions of other industrial facilities worldwide.

Every man and his dog is pro environment and keen on dealing with CC. How many of them have cars, and what do they think makes cars run? How many of them have been on a plane, and what do they think planes need to fly? People can't even be bothered to look around themselves at everything they have and use and recognise that it all is so heavily entrenched in fossil fuels that life as they know it would be impossible with even so much as a 10% reduction in worldwide fossil fuel usage. Imagine what life would look like if we dropped fossil fuels to less than 10% (which is probably the sort of numbers we need)?

Nuclear is the only technology that exists today that could even remotely address the requirements (and even then it would require an enormous retooling of energy infrastructure to do the job. This is only a drop in replacement for certain domains, others, particularly fuels, aren't a solved problem yet). There's a lot of promise in fusion research and battery technology but until we have that in a production ready state we cannot assume it will save us here. How long do we wait before we act here?

not every CC proponent is anti nuclear.

Enough ordinary people are against nuclear to make it impossible to implement. I have accepted that, but I reserve the right to be bitter about it. If I had a time machine I wouldn't go back and kill Hitler, I'd find the rotten greenies that politically poisoned nuclear power off the back of lies and put bullets in them.

comment by TAG · 2020-02-12T14:21:26.036Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most people have zero idea of the scale of the problem here.

So? Most people who are concerned about CC don't want or need expert knowledge, they want politicians to listen to experts.

Enough ordinary people are against nuclear to make it impossible to implement.

Maybe, but we are nowhere near "enough".

"Plans For New Reactors Worldwide(Updated January 2020) Nuclear power capacity worldwide is increasing steadily, with about 50 reactors under construction. Most reactors on order or planned are in the Asian region, though there are major plans for new units in Russia. Significant further capacity is being created by plant upgrading. Plant lifetime extension programmes are maintaining capacity, particularly in the USA. Today there are about 450 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries plus Taiwan, with a combined capacity of about 400 GWe. In 2018 these provided 2563 TWh, over 10% of the world's electricity.About 50 power reactors are currently being constructed in 15 countries (see Table below), notably China, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates."

https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/plans-for-new-reactors-worldwide.aspx

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2020-02-15T21:23:21.565Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Most people who are concerned about CC don't want or need expert knowledge, they want politicians to listen to experts.

1. I don't support the idea that you just blindly hand your responsibility for understanding and resolving issues to anyone else, let alone the state.

Even if one is so lazy and foolish as to cede all authority to the state, then if one lives in a democracy one still has an onus to be informed simply to be able to vote inline with one's own values.

2. Politicians understand that gaining the vote of the electorate to gain personal power is their primary goal, and securing money from the elites from that power as the secondary. Notice that listening to experts and solving the actual problem isn't on that list anywhere.

Seriously, when was the last time the state got something done properly and on time? When was the last time you said "gee, I'm so thankful the government is in charge of this"? I'm not about to go full Ayn Rand here, but leaving CC up to the UN to solve seems like an obviously stupid act.

about 50 reactors under construction

This is quite literally *nothing* when compared to conventional or renewable deployments.

Your own quote shows the scale required simply to keep up - 450 reactors supplying 10% of today's load. So napkin math means we need 4500 of them to do all of it (which, of course, only accounts for electrical usage, not fuel usage). See how important understanding exactly how big of a problem scale is as a factor here?

comment by TAG · 2020-02-16T11:22:20.597Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't support the idea that ordinary people can have a good enough level of understanding of everything it takes to run a society. For that matter they can't fix their own cars or bodies.

One can vote on goals and leave the implementation to experts. People trying to out think experts tends to lead to nonsense like anti vaccing.

If you think the private sector is never slow, lumbering or inefficient, I have news for you.

Your own quote shows the scale required simply to keep up − 450 reactors supplying 10% of today’s load. So napkin math means we need 4500 of them to do all of it (which, of course, only accounts for electrical usage, not fuel usage). See how important understanding exactly how big of a problem scale is as a factor here?

10% is 10%,not nothing. Since renewables are a thing, there is no need for nuclear to be 100% of the solution.

comment by Dagon · 2020-02-17T18:00:30.567Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't support the idea that you just blindly hand your responsibility for understanding and resolving issues to anyone else, let alone the state.

vs

I don't support the idea that ordinary people can have a good enough level of understanding of everything it takes to run a society. For that matter they can't fix their own cars or bodies.

These are not contradictory. States are Soylent Green - they're made of people! There is literally no person who has a good enough level of understanding of everything it takes to run a society. More importantly, societies aren't "run", they're ... I don't know. "followed"? "co-dependently-evolved"? Societies pick (or at least tolerate) the "leaders" that exemplify the confusion in goals that the society has.

Experts have fairly narrow focus, and tend to be just as incorrect as the rest of us outside their field (and often, inside, for fields with heavy political/funding influence).

answer by Dagon · 2020-02-10T23:48:45.137Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Possible explanations:

1) Many impacts are not just small, but effectively zero, or even slightly negative. Spending more effort/resources to do things that APPEAR good but actually don't matter, is a net harm.

2) Some items have threshold or nonlinear impact such that it's near-zero unless everybody (or at least more than are likely) does them. This gets to second-order arguments of "my example won't influence the people who need to change", but the argument does recurse well.

3) The world is, in fact, full of irresponsible people. Unfortunately, it's mostly governed by those same people.

4) Reasons given for something don't always match the actual causality. "It wouldn't matter" is more socially defensible than "I value my comfort over the aggregate effect".

5) Relative rather than absolute measures - "I'm a sucker" vs "the world is slightly better".

6) The https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect may not be a real thing, but there is an element of social proof in the idea that if most people are doing something, it's probably OK.

answer by remizidae · 2020-02-11T13:03:40.609Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If my action has a zero or infinitesimal positive impact on the relevant problem, while a negative and non-infinitesimal impact on me, cost-benefit analysis concludes I should not do it. I think OP needs to do more work to justify why they think this is not so.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T19:57:26.912Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't claim that is not the case.

You seem to think that an altruist action that harms me but benefits the whole planet should have at least a certain amount X of positive impact on the planet... otherwise it's not worth certain sacrifices. And to that, I say: Fair enough!

To give an absurd example: Giving up civilized life, and starting to live in the middle of the forest without any technology would be a silly, disproportionate, ineffective sacrifice to do in order to help Climate Change. It's a nonsensical plan. And I agree with you.

I think what I'm trying to figure out is... how can we maximize benefit to the planet?

Can we aim at a certain ratio of personal sacrifice / benefit to the planet?

Can we even measure the benefit? Does it make sense to take it into account?

Perhaps we should just make the maximum amount of sacrifice we'd willing to do, try to inspire others to to the same, and hope for the best?

What do you think?

answer by leggi · 2020-02-11T07:50:02.392Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW
Does this phenomenon have a name?

Laziness, apathy, indifference, lack of self-responsibility, weakness, stupidity, selfishness, herd mentality?

Ultimately the only person's behaviour you can change is your own. Either you chose to do better things or you don't. Lead by example if you care, otherwise you don't care enough to change.

15 comments

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comment by shminux · 2020-02-11T01:43:51.828Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Why do we refuse to take action claiming our impact would be too small?

We don't. Manifestly so. We (or those of us with enough skill to do so) engage others to leverage the impact, increasing it manifold. Examples are abound, most recently Greta Thunberg, but in general every time people organize for a cause. Of course, not everyone can do it, people are all different and it often takes a passionate leader, a champion of a specific cause, to get the ball rolling. But it happens all the time, just check the news.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T20:03:40.745Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course I was referring specifically about people who, in your words, cannot do it. :)

I worded it as "we" instead of "some people" in order to take my fair bit of personal responsibility: Even though I fully acknowledge the incredible importance of Climate Change, through my actions I am often part of this group of irresponsible people I refer to.

That being said, I found your answer really enlightening. Thank you. :)

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-02-10T19:57:22.624Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But I also see the opposite? People impact larping by taking shorter showers etc and admonishing those around them for not doing so when that has no impact.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-10T20:34:49.203Z · score: -5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure. There are two separate problems, which I can illustrate in this hypothetical scenario:

  • A group of people need to fill a glass of water.
  • Each person can only add one drop of water per minute, maximum.

So...

1. Underestimating small-impact actions: This is the phenomenon I describe in my post. Often used as an excuse to avoid responsibility or to shift blame to others. An action with a very small impact is "rounded down" and is considered to have zero impact. i.e. Adding one droplet has insignificant impact, so why bother doing that? Let's push for a change of the rules, so we can fill the glass all at once.

2. Overestimating small-impact actions: This is the phenomenon you describe. Often used to settle for a minimal effort. An action with a very small impact is "rounded up" and is considered to have "enough impact", so we oversee further action we could take. i.e. I've already added one droplet. I've done my part. What do you want from me? Now it's up to others!

These two traps prevent individuals from taking an optimal strategy:

  • Add as many droplets as you can.
  • Suggest to others that they keep adding droplets.
  • And sure, ALSO, keep pushing for a change of the rules, so that water can be added in a faster manner.
comment by Pattern · 2020-02-10T22:45:35.018Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How is impact correctly estimated (or its order of magnitude)? (And how can it be correctly estimated?)

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T20:07:42.976Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good question! I don't think it's usually possible to estimate that accurately.

That's why I think it may make sense to play it safe, and just adopt a strategy of "doing our personal best", while trying to promote other changes too (inspire others to do their best, push for policy changes, etc).

comment by remizidae · 2020-02-11T13:06:36.431Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this example is misleading; I could fill a water glass by myself one drop at a time, although it would take a long time. But, with many large problems such as pandemics and climate change, there is no feasible scenario where one person’s action makes a difference. Perhaps an example where I try to fill a swimming pool one drop at a time, while hundreds of gallons per minute pour out through the hole in the bottom.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T20:09:44.742Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair. (I was only trying to model a super specific aspect of this debate, not the entire problem).

Your example of filling the swimming pool one drop at a time while hundreds of gallons per minute pour out through the hole in the bottom is much better, and kind of disheartening to think about.

What's a good strategy in that scenario? (maybe adding a twist: If the pool completely empties, we all die)

comment by Dagon · 2020-02-14T20:27:30.804Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In that scenario, the strategy is probably to stop the leak or find a new pool, rather than trying to coordinate to fill it fast enough. Or perhaps just to enjoy the remaining water before we all die.

I'm reminded of the old military recommendation: "Sir, what should I do if I step on a mine?" "The recommended strategy is to leap 10 feet into the air and splatter yourself over a wide area".

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-11T16:56:06.699Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nothing in the facts of the scenario layed out in the OP indicates that anybody engages in underestimating. The scenario is completely compatible with everyone estimating the effects of their actions correctly but at the same time are unwilling to pay the price for them.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T20:12:19.311Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough. Presumably there could be many different reasons to be unwilling to "cooperate". One of them could be an underestimation of the effects of one's individual actions, but there could be other reasons.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-02-11T14:02:17.703Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To illustrate with an hypothetical example: If we suddenly found out that mobile phone frequencies destroy the planet …

I find that phenomena like this are almost entirely pointless to illustrate with hypothetical examples, and much more fruitful to instead illustrate with actual examples.

Note, however, that if you do this, you may get responses protesting that actually, your supposed “actual examples” are not, in fact, examples of your claimed phenomenon. This, of course, is very much a feature, and not at all a bug—as it is quite possible that the phenomenon you thought was real, in fact… isn’t. In the latter case, what you would expect is precisely that all your attempts to provide actual examples would be met with skepticism and protest.

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-14T20:14:43.002Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's why I didn't focus on actual examples, and only briefly mentioned a couple in the begginning. :P

I'm more interested in the psychological phenomenon, rather than specific instances in real life, or wether its occurrence is a good or a bad thing.

e.g. Maybe it makes sense to not cooperate. I don't know. That's out of scope here.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-02-14T21:14:22.221Z · score: -4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m not sure I get your meaning. You didn’t focus on actual examples… because you don’t want to find out if the phenomenon you’re describing is actually real or not? (But you obviously should want to find this out—that is what we’re doing here, right?)

I mean, if what you’re describing isn’t a real thing, then this whole conversation is moot, isn’t it?

comment by hookdump · 2020-02-18T15:25:19.379Z · score: -1 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm saying it's out of scope, meaning it's not what this post is about.

It's about a phenomenon that happens in lots of different situations and topics. I'm trying to generalize it, abstract it, and understand it.

A simple example:

Family meeting. Mother says: "The electric bill is getting expensive. Please mind your use of energy. Don't leave lights on when unnecessary. Use the Air Conditioner at reasonable temperatures. Etc."

Then one of the sons thinks: "Why should I make any personal changes or sacrifices? I barely use electricity, the ones wasting it are the others. The expensive bill is their fault. So unless they make a change, my sacrifice won't even make a dent. No point in doing it."

That's the phenomenon I'm talking about. Aside from specific instances.