High-Level Thoughts

  • A “crony belief” is a belief that we have for social and political benefit (virtue / tribal signaling), instead of for accurately modeling the world.
  • An easy way to tell if a belief is crony is whether you feel offended by it being challenged, vs. happy to have your knowledge improved.
  • Our brain will take a protective, defensive stance towards crony beliefs.
  • The biggest sign of cronyism is strong emotions about our beliefs, like being proud of them, anguish over changing our minds, or anger at being challenged or criticized.

Summary Notes

From the inside, via introspection, each of us feels that our beliefs are pretty damn sensible. Sure we might harbor a bit of doubt here and there. But for the most part, we imagine we have a firm grip on reality; we don't lie awake at night fearing that we're massively deluded. But when we consider the beliefs of other people? It's an epistemic shit show out there. Astrology, conspiracies, the healing power of crystals. Aliens who abduct Earthlings and build pyramids. That vaccines cause autism or that Obama is a crypto-Muslim — or that the world was formed some 6,000 years ago, replete with fossils made to look millions of years old. How could anyone believe this stuff?! No, seriously: how?

So whatever processes beget their delusions are at work in our minds as well. We therefore owe it to ourselves to try to reconcile the inside and outside views. Because let's not flatter ourselves: we believe crazy things too. We just have a hard time seeing them as crazy.

By way of analogy, let's consider how beliefs in the brain are like employees at a company. This isn't a perfect analogy, but it'll get us 70% of the way there.

we can think about beliefs as ideas that have been "hired" by the brain. And we hire them because they have a "job" to do, which is to provide accurate information about the world.

The closer our beliefs hew to reality, the better actions we'll be able to take, leading ultimately to survival and reproductive success. That's our "bottom line," and that's what determines whether our beliefs are serving us well. If a belief performs poorly — by inaccurately modeling the world, say, and thereby leading us astray — then it needs to be let go.

I contend that the best way to understand all the crazy beliefs out there — aliens, conspiracies, and all the rest — is to analyze them as crony beliefs. Beliefs that have been "hired" not for the legitimate purpose of accurately modeling the world, but rather for social and political kickbacks.

As Steven Pinker says, People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.

The human brain has to strike an awkward balance between two different reward systems: Meritocracy, where we monitor beliefs for accuracy out of fear that we'll stumble by acting on a false belief; and Cronyism, where we don't care about accuracy so much as whether our beliefs make the right impressions on others.

And so we can roughly (with caveats we'll discuss in a moment) divide our beliefs into merit beliefs and crony beliefs. Both contribute to our bottom line — survival and reproduction — but they do so in different ways: merit beliefs by helping us navigate the world, crony beliefs by helping us look good.

Even mild incentives, however, can still exert pressure on our beliefs. Russ Roberts tells the story of a colleague who, at a picnic, started arguing for an unpopular political opinion — that minimum wage laws can cause harm — whereupon there was a "frost in the air" as his fellow picnickers "edged away from him on the blanket." If this happens once or twice, it's easy enough to shrug off. But when it happens again and again, especially among people whose opinions we care about, sooner or later we'll second-guess our beliefs and be tempted to revise them.

But it can also be helpful to take a different perspective, one in which our brains actively adopt crony beliefs in order to strategically influence other people. In other words, we use crony beliefs to posture.

Here are a few of the agendas we can accomplish with our beliefs:

  • Blending in. Often it's useful to avoid drawing attention to ourselves; as Voltaire said, "It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong." In which case, we'll want to adopt ordinary or common beliefs.
  • Sticking out. In other situations, it might be better to bristle and hold unorthodox beliefs, in order to demonstrate that we're independent thinkers or that we don't cow to authority. This is similar to the biological strategy of aposematism, and I suspect it's one of the key motives driving people to conspiracy theories and other contrarian beliefs.
  • Sucking up. Being a yes-man or –woman, or otherwise adopting beliefs that flatter those with power, is an established tactic for cozying up to authority figures. Similarly — though we don't think of it as "sucking up" — we often use beliefs to demonstrate loyalty, both to individuals ("My son would never do something like that") as well as to entire communities ("The Raiders are definitely going to win tonight"). Just as we bow, kneel, and prostrate before rulers and altars, we also have means of humbling ourselves epistemically, e.g., by adopting beliefs that privilege others' interests over our own.
  • Showing off, AKA signaling. We can use our beliefs to show off many of our cognitive or psychological qualities: intelligence, kindness, openness, cleverness, etc. I'm sure Elon Musk impressed a lot of people with his willingness to entertain the mind-bending idea that our universe is merely a simulation; whether he's right or wrong is largely incidental.
  • Cheerleading. Here the idea is to believe what you want other people to believe — in other words, believing your own propaganda, drinking your own Kool-aid. Over-the-top self-confidence, for example, seems dangerous as a private merit belief, but makes perfect sense as a crony belief, if expressing it inspires others to have confidence in you.
  • Jockeying for high ground. This might mean the moral high ground ("Effective Altruism is the only kind of altruism worth doing") or some kind of social high ground ("New York has so much more culture than San Francisco").

As Homo sapiens, our mistakes are stubborn, systematic, and (in some cases) exaggerated by runaway social feedback loops. And this, I claim, is because our lives are teeming with other people. The trouble with people is that they have partial visibility into our minds, and they sometimes reward us for believing falsehoods and/or punish us for believing the truth. This is why we're tempted to participate in epistemic corruption — to think in bad faith.

First, it's important to remember that merit beliefs aren't necessarily true, nor are crony beliefs necessarily false. What distinguishes the two concepts is how we're rewarded for them: via effective actions or via social impressions. The best we can say is that merit beliefs are more likely to be true.

A given belief can serve both pragmatic and social purposes at the same time — just like Robert could theoretically be a productive employee, even while he's the mayor's nephew.

Something in our brains has to be aware — dimly, at least — of which beliefs are cronies, or else we wouldn't be able to give them the coddling that they need to survive inside an otherwise meritocratic system. (If literally no one at Acme knew that Robert was a crony employee, he'd quickly be fired.) The trick, then, is to look for differences in how merit beliefs and crony beliefs are treated by the brain.

We should expect ordinary beliefs to be treated with level-headed pragmatism. They have only one job to do — model the world — and when they do it poorly, we suffer. This naturally leads to such attitudes as a fear of being wrong and even an eagerness to be criticized and corrected. As Karl Popper and (more recently) David Deutsch have argued, knowledge can't exist without criticism. If we want to be right in the long run, we have to accept that we'll often be wrong in the short run, and be willing to do the needful thing, i.e., discard questionable beliefs. This may sound vaguely heroic or psychologically difficult, somehow, but it's not. A meritocracy experiences no anguish in letting go of a misbelief and adopting a better one, even its opposite. In fact, it's a pleasure. If I believe that my daughter's soccer game starts at 6pm, but my neighbor informs me that it's 5pm, I won't begrudge his correction — I'll be downright grateful.

Crony beliefs, on the other hand, get an entirely different treatment. Since we mostly don't care whether they're making accurate predictions, we have little need to seek out criticism for them. (Why would Acme bother monitoring Robert's performance if they never intend to fire him?) Going further, crony beliefs actually need to be protected from criticism. It's not that they're necessarily false, just that they're more likely to be false — but either way, they're unlikely to withstand serious criticism. Thus we should expect our brains to take an overall protective or defensive stance toward our crony beliefs.

Here, then, is a short list of features that crony beliefs will tend to have, relative to good-faith merit beliefs:

  • Abstract and impractical. Merit beliefs have value only insofar as we're able to make use of them for choosing actions; we need some "skin in the game." If a belief isn't actionable, or if the actions we might take based on the belief (e.g., voting) don't provide material benefits one way or the other, then it's more likely to be a crony.
  • Benefit of the doubt. When we have social incentives to believe something, we stack the deck in its favor. Or to use another metaphor, we put our thumbs on the scale as we weigh the evidence. Blind faith — religious, political, or otherwise — is simply "benefit of the doubt" taken to its logical extreme.
  • Conspicuousness. The whole point of a crony belief is to reap social and political rewards, but in order to get these rewards, we need to advertise the belief in question. So the greater our urge to talk about a belief, to wear it like a badge, the more likely it is to be a crony.
  • Overconfidence. Related to the above, crony beliefs will typically provide more social value the more confident we seem in them. (If Acme hires the mayor's nephew, but seems constantly on the verge of firing him, the mayor isn't going to be happy.) Overconfidence also acts as a form of protection for beliefs that can't survive on their own within the meritocracy.
  • Reluctance to bet. Betting on a belief is just as good as acting on it; both mechanisms create incentives for accuracy. If we're reluctant to bet on a belief, then, it's often because some parts of our psyche know that the belief is unlikely to be true. Hence the challenge: "Put up or shut up."

But perhaps the biggest hallmark of epistemic cronyism is exhibiting strong emotions, as when we feel proud of a belief, anguish over changing our minds, or anger at being challenged or criticized. These emotions have no business being within 1000ft of a meritocratic belief system — but of course they make perfect sense as part of a crony belief system, where cronies need special protection in order to survive the natural pressures of a meritocracy.

The better — but much more difficult — solution is to attack epistemic cronyism at the root, i.e., in the way others judge us for our beliefs. If we could arrange for our peers to judge us solely for the accuracy of our beliefs, then we'd have no incentive to believe anything but the truth.In other words, we do need to teach rationality and critical thinking skills — not just to ourselves, but to everyone at once.

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