Your Price for Joining

In the Ul­ti­ma­tum Game, the first player chooses how to split $10 be­tween them­selves and the sec­ond player, and the sec­ond player de­cides whether to ac­cept the split or re­ject it—in the lat­ter case, both par­ties get noth­ing. So far as con­ven­tional causal de­ci­sion the­ory goes (two-box on New­comb’s Prob­lem, defect in Pri­soner’s Dilemma), the sec­ond player should pre­fer any non-zero amount to noth­ing. But if the first player ex­pects this be­hav­ior—ac­cept any non-zero offer—then they have no mo­tive to offer more than a penny. As I as­sume you all know by now, I am no fan of con­ven­tional causal de­ci­sion the­ory. Those of us who re­main in­ter­ested in co­op­er­at­ing on the Pri­soner’s Dilemma, ei­ther be­cause it’s iter­ated, or be­cause we have a term in our util­ity func­tion for fair­ness, or be­cause we use an un­con­ven­tional de­ci­sion the­ory, may also not ac­cept an offer of one penny.

And in fact, most Ul­ti­ma­tum “de­ciders” offer an even split; and most Ul­ti­ma­tum “ac­cepters” re­ject any offer less than 20%. A 100 USD game played in In­done­sia (av­er­age per cap­ita in­come at the time: 670 USD) showed offers of 30 USD be­ing turned down, al­though this equates to two week’s wages. We can prob­a­bly also as­sume that the play­ers in In­done­sia were not think­ing about the aca­demic de­bate over New­comblike prob­lems—this is just the way peo­ple feel about Ul­ti­ma­tum Games, even ones played for real money.

There’s an analogue of the Ul­ti­ma­tum Game in group co­or­di­na­tion. (Has it been stud­ied? I’d hope so...) Let’s say there’s a com­mon pro­ject—in fact, let’s say that it’s an al­tru­is­tic com­mon pro­ject, aimed at helping mug­ging vic­tims in Canada, or some­thing. If you join this group pro­ject, you’ll get more done than you could on your own, rel­a­tive to your util­ity func­tion. So, ob­vi­ously, you should join.

But wait! The anti-mug­ging pro­ject keeps their funds in­vested in a money mar­ket fund! That’s ridicu­lous; it won’t earn even as much in­ter­est as US Trea­suries, let alone a div­i­dend-pay­ing in­dex fund.

Clearly, this pro­ject is run by mo­rons, and you shouldn’t join un­til they change their ma­l­in­vest­ing ways.

Now you might re­al­ize—if you stopped to think about it—that all things con­sid­ered, you would still do bet­ter by work­ing with the com­mon anti-mug­ging pro­ject, than strik­ing out on your own to fight crime. But then—you might per­haps also re­al­ize—if you too eas­ily as­sent to join­ing the group, why, what mo­tive would they have to change their ma­l­in­vest­ing ways?

Well… Okay, look. Pos­si­bly be­cause we’re out of the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one else… and pos­si­bly be­cause the non­con­formist crowd tries to re­pu­di­ate nor­mal group-co­her­ing forces like con­for­mity and leader-wor­ship...

...It seems to me that peo­ple in the athe­ist/​liber­tar­ian/​technophile/​sf-fan/​etcetera cluster of­ten set their join­ing prices way way way too high. Like a 50-way split Ul­ti­ma­tum game, where ev­ery one of 50 play­ers de­mands at least 20% of the money.

If you think how of­ten situ­a­tions like this would have arisen in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, then it’s al­most cer­tainly a mat­ter of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy. Sys­tem 1 emo­tions, not Sys­tem 2 calcu­la­tion. Our in­tu­itions for when to join groups, ver­sus when to hold out for more con­ces­sions to our own preferred way of do­ing things, would have been honed for hunter-gath­erer en­vi­ron­ments of, e.g., 40 peo­ple all of whom you knew per­son­ally.

And if the group is made up of 1000 peo­ple? Then your hunter-gath­erer in­stincts will un­der­es­ti­mate the in­er­tia of a group so large, and de­mand an un­re­al­is­ti­cally high price (in strate­gic shifts) for you to join. There’s a limited amount of or­ga­ni­za­tional effort, and a limited num­ber of de­grees of free­dom, that can go into do­ing things any one’s per­son way.

And if the strat­egy is large and com­plex, the sort of thing that takes e.g. ten peo­ple do­ing pa­per­work for a week, rather than be­ing ham­mered out over a half-hour of ne­go­ti­a­tion around a campfire? Then your hunter-gath­erer in­stincts will un­der­es­ti­mate the in­er­tia of the group, rel­a­tive to your own de­mands.

And if you live in a wider world than a sin­gle hunter-gath­erer tribe, so that you only see the one group rep­re­sen­ta­tive who ne­go­ti­ates with you, and not the hun­dred other ne­go­ti­a­tions that have taken place already? Then your in­stincts will tell you that it is just one per­son, a stranger at that, and the two of you are equals; what­ever ideas they bring to the table are equal with what­ever ideas you bring to the table, and the meet­ing point ought to be about even.

And if you suffer from any weak­ness of will or akra­sia, or if you are in­fluenced by mo­tives other than those you would ad­mit to your­self that you are in­fluenced by, then any group-al­tru­is­tic pro­ject which does not offer you the re­wards of sta­tus and con­trol, may per­haps find it­self un­der­served by your at­ten­tions.

Now I do ad­mit that I speak here pri­mar­ily from the per­spec­tive of some­one who goes around try­ing to herd cats; and not from the other side as some­one who spends most of their time with­hold­ing their en­er­gies in or­der to black­mail those damned mo­rons already on the pro­ject. Per­haps I am a lit­tle prej­u­diced.

But it seems to me that a rea­son­able rule of thumb might be as fol­lows:

If, on the whole, join­ing your efforts to a group pro­ject would still have a net pos­i­tive effect ac­cord­ing to your util­ity func­tion—

(or a larger pos­i­tive effect than any other marginal use to which you could oth­er­wise put those re­sources, al­though this lat­ter mode of think­ing seems lit­tle-used and hu­manly-un­re­al­is­tic, for rea­sons I may post about some other time)

—and the awful hor­rible an­noy­ing is­sue is not so im­por­tant that you per­son­ally will get in­volved deeply enough to put in how­ever many hours, weeks, or years may be re­quired to get it fixed up—

—then the is­sue is not worth you with­hold­ing your en­er­gies from the pro­ject; ei­ther in­stinc­tively un­til you see that peo­ple are pay­ing at­ten­tion to you and re­spect­ing you, or by con­scious in­tent to black­mail the group into get­ting it done.

And if the is­sue is worth that much to you… then by all means, join the group and do what­ever it takes to get things fixed up.

Now, if the ex­ist­ing con­trib­u­tors re­fuse to let you do this, and a rea­son­able third party would be ex­pected to con­clude that you were com­pe­tent enough to do it, and there is no one else whose ox is be­ing gored thereby, then, per­haps, we have a prob­lem on our hands. And it may be time for a lit­tle black­mail, if the re­sources you can con­di­tion­ally com­mit are large enough to get their at­ten­tion.

Is this rule a lit­tle ex­treme? Oh, maybe. There should be a mo­tive for the de­ci­sion-mak­ing mechanism of a pro­ject to be re­spon­si­ble to its sup­port­ers; un­con­di­tional sup­port would cre­ate its own prob­lems.

But usu­ally… I ob­serve that peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate the costs of what they ask for, or per­haps just act on in­stinct, and set their prices way way way too high. If the non­con­formist crowd ever wants to get any­thing done to­gether, we need to move in the di­rec­tion of join­ing groups and stay­ing there at least a lit­tle more eas­ily. Even in the face of an­noy­ances and im­perfec­tions! Even in the face of un­re­spon­sive­ness to our own bet­ter ideas!

In the age of the In­ter­net and in the com­pany of non­con­formists, it does get a lit­tle tiring read­ing the 451st pub­lic email from some­one say­ing that the Com­mon Pro­ject isn’t worth their re­sources un­til the web­site has a sans-serif font.

Of course this of­ten isn’t re­ally about fonts. It may be about laz­i­ness, akra­sia, or hid­den re­jec­tions. But in terms of group norms… in terms of what sort of pub­lic state­ments we re­spect, and which ex­cuses we pub­li­cly scorn… we prob­a­bly do want to en­courage a group norm of:

If the is­sue isn’t worth your per­son­ally fix­ing by how­ever much effort it takes, and it doesn’t arise from out­right bad faith, it’s not worth re­fus­ing to con­tribute your efforts to a cause you deem worth­while.