Comments for shorter Cold Takes pieces

by Holden Karnofsky1 min read3rd Nov 202114 comments


Holden Karnofsky
Personal Blog

I'd like to start giving people the option of commenting on shorter Cold Takes pieces (which I don't cross-post here or provide audio for). I'm going to use this post for that: I will generally leave a comment for each piece, and people can leave their comments as replies to that.

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Comments for Rowing, Steering, Anchoring, Equity, Mutiny will go here for now. I hope to post the whole piece to the Forum separately, but I'm currently having trouble with formatting. I will post a link to it when it's up so that future comments can go there.

I haven't heard much in the way of specific proposals for how the existing "system" could be fundamentally reformed, other than explicitly socialist and Marxist proposals such as the abolition of private property, which I don't support.

More right-wing flavoured versions that you could run into include flavours of anarcho-capitalism (see e.g. The Machinery of Freedom and The Problem of Political Authority) and Hansonian proposals such as futarchy and private criminal law enforcement.

I don't think the link in the comment works. Here is a direct link:

Holden, I'm curious where you would put painist organizations - those who are only trying to reduce / alleviate pain. One Step for Animals and Lewis' Open Phil work are along these lines. Or do you think this is not a big enough area to warrant discussion (which could well be).

Assuming that the high happiness reports from the Hadza are "real" (and not noise, sampling bias, etc), what might it be?

They have dramatically worse health and nutrition. Also worse "creature comforts" like cozy beds, Netflix and mulled wine. But maybe some combination of the following could be overcoming those drawbacks.

In the category of lifestyle/how you spend your time:

  • Social structure (small communities, much stronger social connection, more social time)
  • Work structure (more cooperation, more "meaning" in work due to knowing you're supporting your family directly / avoiding starvation for yourself and your loved ones)
  • Non-social leisure structure (no Reddit, no TV; no street noise; you're always out in nature)

Or internal experience:

  • Perhaps you'd have different dreams or fantasies?
  • No Instagram, no "keeping up with the Joneses" or social-status stress beyond your immediate community
  • Climate change, nuclear war, and x-risk presumably aren't a worry
  • Could sexual and romantic relationships be more fulfilling related to the small community?

Other ideas?

You already expressed skepticism on the survey of Hadza happiness, but Kat Woods offers more on why such a survey might give inaccurate results. From the intro:

I think the biggest takeaway I had from my experience is that I am even more skeptical of survey methodologies than I was before, and I started off pretty intensely skeptical. The reasons for this is that I think that misunderstandings caused by translation, education levels, and just normal human-to-human communication errors are not only common, but the rule.

The four major issues she notes are:

  • Not understanding hypotheticals.
  • Not understanding in general.
  • People giving inconsistent answers.
  • Refusing to rate happiness.

This is from surveying in Rwanda and Uganda, which will certainly have many of the same difficulties as surveying Hadza. (It also surprised me article that the US and Mexico would have much higher self-reported happiness than, for example, Italy. I wonder if this is a real effect or if happiness surveying is fraught with cultural issues in general.)

This was possibly my favourite email in the Cold Takes email newsletter so far. I always enjoy understanding someone's thought process before they've become an expert on a topic. Once someone knows enough, I think that their views usually change too slowly to easily see or demonstrate (one new piece of information or consideration, one new data point, naturally can't swing the holistic viewpoint quite so much when a person knows a huge amount).

It (unsurprisingly) reminded me of early Givewell material. Givewell is likely right more of the time now than in 2007. With more careful thought and knowledge built-up over time, comes better calibration. There is something lost though. How do we know that someone would change their mind in response to new evidence if we rarely see them change their minds? There is something wonderful about seeing people shift their views somewhat (or their confidence in their views) in response to transparent thinking in real-time. Anecdotally, this seems to happen a lot more in conversation than in writing (everywhere, not just in the EA community and adjacent spaces). In conversation, it is often much more acceptable to express uncertainty about conclusions while still presenting a framework for how you are thinking around an issue. It seems to happen rarely in public outside this community and adjacent ones.

My priors on the object-level question are very different to Holden's. My worst mental health happens when I feel stagnant/ can't contribute/am not valued. Being in physical pain with purpose has always felt much more bearable than having all the creature comforts of our modern time while feeling like what I spend my time doing is meaningless and doesn't add value to anything I really care about. This is obviously extremely weak evidence; memory is unreliable and I am a single individual. There might already be good evidence either way on whether feeling like your day-to-day life has purpose is a better predictor of subjective wellbeing than income or health for a sample size greater than one.

If hunter-gatherer societies consistently give everyone roles that visibly contribute to the lives of the people they know and love (eg. searching for food for the tribe) my prior is that this would feel more purposeful than modern day life (on average). If purpose is a more important factor in predicting subjective wellbeing than health or material wealth, then I would expect this study (across tribes/maybe even looking at biomarkers of depression instead of a survey) to replicate.

Because 'how the question is interpreted' makes comparing subjective happiness survey results hard to compare, one other way to approach the question of 'are hunter-gatherer societies happier' is to look at the people who move between hunter-gatherer and modern societies and study their happiness and outcomes. On the one hand, lots of hunter-gatherer peoples who switched into living in modern societies (e.g. Inuit in Greenland) have fairly bad outcomes ( to my limited knowledge, further study obviously needed here), on the other hand,  few seem to opt to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, potentially suggesting modern lifestyles are preferable to hunter-gather lifestyles. 

Is there a significant cohort of people who've gone from living in modern societies and moved to live in hunter-gatherer societies? If yes, they'd be a useful group to survey. If not, is this evidence that modern lifestyles are preferable to hunter-gatherer ones, because no one 'votes with their feet' and moves from modern societies into hunter-gatherer ones?

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I think one might find that those living in small agricultural/animal herding communities also report high levels of satisfaction with their lives, perhaps as a result of the lifestyle/social structures described by lincolnq above,  and they don't have to sacrifice modern medical care, comfortable beds, a steady supply of food etc.  A hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not a prerequisite for those kinds of structures and relationships.  I'm thinking of the Sardinian communities in the central plateau of Sardinia, which has very high numbers of very long lived people. Of course, those communities are now predominantly old, with young people by seduced by the money, more material goods, and "action" of the large cities. So, there's that to consider as well. When there's a choice, young people prefer to leave.