Sleepwalk bias, self-defeating predictions and existential risk

Connected to: The Argument from Crisis and Pessimism Bias

When we predict the future, we often seem to underestimate the degree to which people will act to avoid adverse outcomes. Examples include Marx’s prediction that the ruling classes would fail to act to avert a bloody revolution, predictions of environmental disasters and resource constraints, y2K, etc. In most or all of these cases, there could have been a catastrophe, if people had not acted with determination and ingenuity to prevent it. But when pressed, people often do that, and it seems that we often fail to take that into account when making predictions. In other words: too often we postulate that people will sleepwalk into a disaster. Call this sleepwalk bias.

What are the causes of sleepwalk bias? I think there are two primary causes:

Cognitive constraints. It is easier to just extrapolate existing trends than to engage in complicated reasoning about how people will act to prevent those trends from continuing.

Predictions as warnings. We often fail to distinguish between predictions in the pure sense (what I would bet will happen) and what we may term warnings (what we think will happen, unless appropriate action is taken). Some of these predictions could perhaps be interpreted as warnings—in which case, they were not as bad as they seemed.

However, you could also argue that they were actual predictions, and that they were more effective because they were predictions, rather than warnings. For, more often than not, there will of course be lots of work to reduce the risk of disaster, which will reduce the risk. This means that a warning saying that “if no action is taken, there will be a disaster” is not necessarily very effective as a way to change behaviour—since we know for a fact that action will be taken. A prediction that there is a high probability of a disaster all things considered is much more effective. Indeed, the fact that predictions are more effective than warnings might be the reason why people predict disasters, rather than warn about them. Such predictions are self-defeating—which you may argue is why people make them.

In practice, I think people often fail to distinguish between pure predictions and warnings. They slide between these interpretations. In any case, the effect of all this is for these “prediction-warnings” to seem too pessimistic qua pure predictions.

The upshot for existential risk is that those suffering from sleepwalk bias may be too pessimistic. They fail to appreciate the enormous efforts people will make to avoid an existential disaster.

Is sleepwalk bias common among the existential risk community? If so, that would be a pro tanto-reason to be somewhat less worried about existential risk. Since it seems to be a common bias, it would be unsurprising if the existential risk community also suffered from it. On the other hand, they have thought about these issues a lot, and may have been able to overcome it (or even overcorrect for it)

Also, even if sleepwalk bias does indeed affect existential risk predictions, it would be dangerous to let this notion make us decrease our efforts to reduce existential risk, given the enormous stakes, and the present neglect of existential risk. If pessimistic predictions may be self-defeating, so may optimistic predictions.

[Added 244 2016] Under which circumstances can we expect actors to sleepwalk? And under what circumstances can we expect that people will expect them to sleepwalk, even though they won’t? Here are some considerations, inspired by the comments below. Sleepwalking is presumably more likely if:

  1. The catastrophe is arriving too fast for actors to react.

  2. It is unclear whether the catastrophe will in fact occur, or it is at least not very observable for the relevant actors (the financial crisis, possibly AGI).

  3. The possible disaster, though observable in some sense, is not sufficiently salient (especially to voters) to override more immediate concerns (climate change).

  4. There are conflicts (World War I) and/​or free-riding problems (climate change) which are hard to overcome.

  5. The problem is technically harder than initially thought.

1, 2 and, in a way, 3, have to do with observing the disaster in time to act, whereas 4 and 5 have to do with ability to act once the problem is identified.

On the second question, my guess would be that people in general do not differentiate sufficiently between scenarios where sleepwalking is plausible and those where it is not (i.e. predicted sleepwalking has less variance than actual sleepwalking). This means that we sometimes probably underestimate the amount of sleepwalking, but more often, if my main argument is right, we overestimate it. An upshot of this is that it is important to try to carefully model the amount of sleepwalking that there will be regarding different existential risks.