The Emperor’s New Clothes: a story of motivated stupidity

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One day, the all-wise Emperor decided to test the perspicacity of his advisers, and he announced that he was having a new set of clothes made.

When the Imperial Clothing Advisory Group was brought in to see the finished product, there was an awkward silence. The Group’s Secretary, a recently promoted poetaster, paused. His eyes shifted around the room.

“Aren’t they fabulous?” said the Emperor. “What do you think of the trimming?”

The Secretary swallowed. The wrong remark might not only dissolve the Group, but subject its members to Chiseling.

The Emperor gave a twirl. Surely he couldn’t think….

“Magnificent!” said Du Yu.

Robe of the Qianlong emperor. Photograph by uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The cheers at the Emperor’s parade were more muted than usual. Those at the back couldn’t see what was going on, and most were raucously drunk on the customary freebies of rice wine. At the front, though, there seemed to be some puzzlement. Murmurs ran through the crowd, dying down in the face of the bodyguard’s ferocious glares.

At this time there lived in the city a naughty little boy, who spent much of his time with street urchins, being treated as a pet by the courtesans of the vilest quarter, and learning to compose lecherous verses. The sources neither confirm nor disprove that this was the future Li Bai. It is only known that he was usually dirty and unkempt, and always shameless. He now stepped out in front of the Emperor, and into legend.

“You’ve got no clothes on,” said Li Bai truculently. A guard with a whip stepped forward. “Halt!” said the Emperor. “Let him through.” Li Bai marched towards the Palanquin. “You’ve got no clothes on,” he repeated, cocking his head.

A gasp, and louder murmurs, ran through the crowd.

The Emperor sighed. The Advisory Group was an entirely useless body, but it kept his brother-in-law safely occupied as its Chair. A loss of face might stir him up to become annoying, or even positively risky. The Emperor’s hand ran abstractedly over his chest hair.

“You see,” he announced, “the depths of foolishness to which a poor orphan may sink in this cesspit of vice! But the Emperor is merciful. Take this child in to the Schools, that Learning may temper his audacity.”

“You know you’re naked,” hissed Li Bai furiously. “Why can’t you admit it?”

“Kid,” muttered the Emperor, “when you reach my age….”

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a story of motivated stupidity.

Noone in the Advisory Group can point out the obvious, because they fear bringing punishment on themselves or the other members of the group.

The Emperor himself can’t admit the obvious, because to do so would upset a carefully balanced social arrangement, of which he is not the complete master.

Beliefs are not only held by individuals. They are also used by groups, up to entire societies, as a means of working together. Just as a belief can guide an individual’s actions across many situations, so, when we need to act in concert with others, a shared belief can coordinate a group’s actions across many situations.

If we accept the common idea of a belief as a “sentence stored in the head”, then shared beliefs may even be the primary phenomenon, and individual beliefs just a spinoff. Individual expectations needn’t be stored in linguistic form: you can have a feeling about which horse will win the race, without thinking up a sentence about it. Language only becomes useful when you need to get other people to agree.

Individual expectations can be updated in the light of new evidence. Humans may do that wrong in all sorts of ways, but they at least always have a reason to do it. More accurate expectations lead directly to better choices.

When collective beliefs meet new evidence, the most sensible thing to do is often ignore it. If you think the Emperor is naked, and everyone else is acting as if he isn’t, you get no benefit from stepping out of line. Even if you think everyone else can see the Emperor is naked, it is still risky to say so. Even if you think everyone else thinks that, and also thinks you think so, that is still no help unless you’re sure they are going to act on it.

An entire society may stand to benefit, and may know that it would, from changing its collective beliefs in the light of new evidence, and still the prospective chaos and disruption of the change may be enough to stop that happening.

Who cares which way some heavenly body moves? If the earth is not the centre of the universe, that threatens the authority of the Pope, which really matters.

Contemporary social science has done a lot of work to show how individuals can be stupid. There are long lists of human biases. Groups like the rationalists try to weed out their own biases, or look for tricks to minimize their effects.

But as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, ignorance is hardest to eradicate when someone’s breakfast depends on it. Individual dumbness is worth getting rid of. Collective stupidity’s future is assured. It pays for itself.