306: Incentives, Not Conspiracies

This is the Monday Medley, a newsletter that goes out, you guessed it, every Monday. I republish it here for sharing and referencing, but if you'd like to sign up you can do so right here:

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Happy Monday!

Last week, Neil and I released a Made You Think episode about King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, a book about masculine psychology.

And on my crypto newsletter, I covered where I think NFT-based identities will need to move towards over time, and a new project that's leading the way.

Alright, on to the Medley.

Incentives. Not Conspiracies.

For how much we enjoy conspiracy theories, remarkably few of them ever turn up. If we look at the last hundred years of American history, how many true conspiracies have been uncovered? And I mean actually uncovered, not "uncovered" by creative YouTubers with severe Vitamin D deficiencies.

The Tuskege Study comes to mind. Researchers from the US Public Health Service observed what happened to Black men with syphilis for over 30 years while knowing perfectly well that penicillin would cure them. They let them get sick and die so they could autopsy them after and see what the disease did.

How the hell did this happen? When the study started there was no treatment for syphilis so you can kinda see why they wanted to study its symptoms. But then letting these men go untreated for decades after penicillin was discovered is incredibly fucked up. If you read the AP report that was published in 1972, it doesn't seem like this was a conspiracy though.

When we say conspiracy, we're suggesting a group of people colluded to engage in some secretive activity for their own benefit, at the expense of the broader public who are kept unaware of what they're doing. It suggests that a group decides to do something nefarious for their own benefit, then covers it up and hopes to get away with it.

One explanation, the conspiracy one, is that the scientists at USPHS were super racist and got off on killing Black men in Alabama. This is the exciting explanation we're emotionally drawn to because Disney trained us to break the world into Good and Evil and be on the lookout for witches giving out apples full of arsenic.

But the other explanation is that once it started there were decently strong incentives to not say anything about it. To go along with it.

Imagine you're a young scientist fresh out of Yale in 1948 starting at USPHS. You get assigned to work on the Tuskegee experiment. After all the details are explained to you, you ask your supervisor:

"Hey, have we considered just giving them penicillin to cure them and ending this? Why are letting them die?"

And he goes:

"Well it's important research that's been going on for 18 years and we need to see it through. I asked my boss about this once too and he said these data will still be very helpful for future medical work."

Now what? Do you nobly keep pushing back, putting your entire future career on the line to do what you think is right? Or do you go "well they probably know something I don't, this has been going on for a while, this research is going to help people..." and quietly collect your data.

We all want to believe we'd be the ones to push back, but we probably wouldn't. We'd do what we're told. It doesn't matter what you think you would do, we need only look at history to see the countless examples of huge numbers of people doing exactly what I'm describing. That's why the Tuskegee experiment was able to continue for 40 years until AP wrote a story about it and why there's still a genocide going on in China because hey iPhones are cool right?

I don't think the Tuskegee experiment has to be explained as a conspiracy. It can just as easily be explained by people following incentives. There are countless examples of large numbers of people acting in unexplainable, harmful, or ridiculous ways because it's in their interest to do so. That doesn't excuse them or make it okay. It just shows how people can end up doing things they would otherwise be aghast at given the right social conditions.

One of the strongest incentives driving human behavior is appeasing the in-group. When you're part of a defined group, you have more incentive to align yourself with that group's goals than you would if you were not part of that group. The larger the group and the more important group membership is, the more ridiculous things its members can be incentivized into going along with. If three random houses in your neighborhood put out their Christmas lights in July it probably won't affect you. If you log in to Slack and everyone else on your team suddenly has their pronouns in their profile, you're going to feel extremely compelled to add them yourself. This isn't the hill you want to risk your job, future career, and possibly friend group on, right? You're a Good Guy, right?

It also explains why legacy media institutions (NYT, CNN, etc) can fail to provide accurate and balanced reporting compared to independent journalists. Especially on whatever is currently Dangerous Misinformation. When you're a reporter at the NYT, your strongest incentive is to keep your job as a reporter. If you have to choose between accuracy and conformity, conformity will win every day.

This doesn't necessarily mean lying. It could be as simple as what stories get written or published. I don't publish or talk about certain things because it's in my best interest to avoid them, but I suspect my list is much shorter than an employed reporter.

These incentives to conform are also why organizations are less trustworthy than individuals. Organizations are made up of individuals, yes. But they're made up of individuals with a strong incentive to keep being a member of the organization. An individual reporter with a substack has their incentives more directly aligned with their readership than a reporter who's part of a larger publication, and who has to think about all of the same things as the independent reporter and has to think about keeping their employer happy.

We see this too with government agencies. An FDA employee has almost no incentive to make people healthier. They don't get paid more, or get any credit if Americans start losing weight and living longer. But approving drugs, making certain food recommendations, and being outspoken about different businesses is a great way to get hired after being at the FDA. So they have a strong financial incentive to recommend processed foods and chronic pharmaceutical use, and almost no incentive to focus on real food and preventative medicine. Even if you work there and feel differently, it's rarely worth risking your career to sound the alarm. You just say "yeah okay I agree with that" and go back to your syphilis research.

Meanwhile, independent health bloggers or medical practitioners do have more of an incentive to find the best solution since they're dealing with real people who they can see getting sicker or better. They can obviously have bad incentives too (recommending whatever makes them the most money, for example) but they're at least closer to being aligned with the individuals they purport to be trying to help. It's about Skin in the Game, capiche?

It's nice to imagine we're all very smart people who are above this, but we're not. We do the exact same things. We all hold Crony Beliefs to prove we're a member of The Good Guys. And I'm not sure it's worth trying to carve out this instinct. It's in there DEEP.

But we can try to get around it. Working independently, keeping a low (or de-risked) social footprint, and reducing the groups or tribes you feel affiliated with can alleviate the external pressures on your beliefs and actions. Keeping an eye out for ideas that you have an emotional response to being challenged is also a good way to identify what you believe for tribal vs. individual reasons.

For evaluating others, a good heuristic may be that the more bumper stickers, titles, or hashtags someone has, the less you can expect their ideas to be self-generated. And the more their job or livelihood is risked by heterodoxy, the less honesty you should expect from them.

If we want to argue that some group is being deceptive, malicious, or just wrong, we shouldn't invoke conspiracy theories. "They" are not doing anything. There is no "they." People suck at keeping secrets, and there are remarkably few true conspiracies. Especially once more than a very small group of people are involved.

But large groups of people following incentives that push them to act in certain ways that may harm others, intentionally or not? That happens all the time. And if a group has an incentive to do something, they'll probably do it. It's certainly more likely than all of them deciding at the same time to act against their self-interest.

Incentives rule the world.

Have a great week,

Enjoyed this? Be sure to subscribe!