… And Everyone Loses Their Minds

Chris Nolan’s Joker is a very clever guy, al­most Mon­roesque in his abil­ity to iden­tify hypocrisy and in­con­sis­tency. One of his most in­ter­est­ing scenes in the film has him point out how peo­ple es­ti­mate hor­rible things differ­ently de­pend­ing on whether they’re part of what’s “nor­mal”, what’s “ex­pected”, rather than on how in­her­ently hor­rify­ing they are, or how many peo­ple are in­volved.

Soon peo­ple ex­trap­o­lated this ob­ser­va­tion to other such ap­par­ent in­con­sis­ten­cies in hu­man judg­ment, where a be­havi­our that once was ac­cept­able, with a sim­ple tweak or change in con­text, be­comes the sub­ject of a much more se­ri­ous re­ac­tion.

I think there’s ra­tio­nal­ist merit in giv­ing these in­con­sis­ten­cies a se­ri­ous look. I in­tuit that there’s some sort of un­der­ly­ing pat­tern to them, some­thing that makes psy­cholog­i­cal sense, in the round­about way that most ir­ra­tional things do. I think that much good could come out of figur­ing out what that root cause is, and how to pre­dict this effect and man­age it.

Phenom­ena that come to mind, are, for in­stance, from an Effec­tive Altru­ism point of view, the ex­penses in­curred in counter-ter­ror­ism (in­clud­ing some wars that were very ex­pen­sive in trea­sure and lives), and the num­ber of lives said ex­penses save, com­pared with the num­ber of lives that could be saved by spend­ing that same amount into im­prov­ing road safety, in­creas­ing pub­lic helath­care ex­pense where it would do the most good, build­ing bet­ter light­ning rods (in the USA you’re four times more likely to be struck by thun­der than by ter­ror­ists), or le­gal­iz­ing drugs.

What do y’all think? Why do peo­ple have their pri­ori­ties all jum­bled-up? How can we pre­dict these effects? How can we work around them?