Beware Trivial Inconveniences

The Great Firewall of China. A massive system of centralized censorship purging the Chinese version of the Internet of all potentially subversive content. Generally agreed to be a great technical achievement and political success even by the vast majority of people who find it morally abhorrent.

I spent a few days in China. I got around it at the Internet cafe by using a free online proxy. Actual Chinese people have dozens of ways of getting around it with a minimum of technical knowledge or just the ability to read some instructions.

The Chinese government isn’t losing any sleep over this (although they also don’t lose any sleep over murdering political dissidents, so maybe they’re just very sound sleepers). Their theory is that by making it a little inconvenient and time-consuming to view subversive sites, they will discourage casual exploration. No one will bother to circumvent it unless they already seriously distrust the Chinese government and are specifically looking for foreign websites, and these people probably know what the foreign websites are going to say anyway.

Think about this for a second. The human longing for freedom of information is a terrible and wonderful thing. It delineates a pivotal difference between mental emancipation and slavery. It has launched protests, rebellions, and revolutions. Thousands have devoted their lives to it, thousands of others have even died for it. And it can be stopped dead in its tracks by requiring people to search for “how to set up proxy” before viewing their anti-government website.

I was reminded of this recently by Eliezer’s Less Wrong Progress Report. He mentioned how surprised he was that so many people were posting so much stuff on Less Wrong, when very few people had ever taken advantage of Overcoming Bias’ policy of accepting contributions if you emailed them to a moderator and the moderator approved. Apparently all us folk brimming with ideas for posts didn’t want to deal with the aggravation.

Okay, in my case at least it was a bit more than that. There’s a sense of going out on a limb and drawing attention to yourself, of arrogantly claiming some sort of equivalence to Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky. But it’s still interesting that this potential embarrassment and awkwardness was enough to keep the several dozen people who have blogged on here so far from sending that “I have something I’d like to post...” email.

Companies frequently offer “free rebates”. For example, an $800 television with a $200 rebate. There are a few reasons companies like rebates, but one is that you’ll be attracted to the television because it appears to have a net cost only $600, but then filling out the paperwork to get the rebate is too inconvenient and you won’t get around to it. This is basically a free $200 for filling out an annoying form, but companies can predict that customers will continually fail to complete it. This might make some sense if you’re a high-powered lawyer or someone else whose time is extremely valuable, but most of us have absolutely no excuse.

One last example: It’s become a truism that people spend more when they use credit cards than when they use money. This particular truism happens to be true: in a study by Prelec and Simester1, auction participants bid twice as much for the same prize when using credit than when using cash. The trivial step of getting the money and handing it over has a major inhibitory effect on your spending habits.

I don’t know of any unifying psychological theory that explains our problem with trivial inconveniences. It seems to have something to do with loss aversion, and with the brain’s general use of emotion-based hacks instead of serious cost-benefit analysis. It might be linked to akrasia; for example, you might not have enough willpower to go ahead with the unpleasant action of filling in a rebate form, and your brain may assign it low priority because it’s hard to imagine the connection between the action and the reward.

But these trivial inconveniences have major policy implications. Countries like China that want to oppress their citizens are already using “soft” oppression to make it annoyingly difficult to access subversive information. But there are also benefits for governments that want to help their citizens.

”Soft paternalism” means a lot of things to a lot of different people. But one of the most interesting versions is the idea of “opt-out” government policies. For example, it would be nice if everyone put money into a pension scheme. Left to their own devices, many ignorant or lazy people might never get around to starting a pension, and in order to prevent these people’s financial ruin, there is strong a moral argument for a government-mandated pension scheme. But there’s also a strong libertarian argument against that idea; if someone for reasons of their own doesn’t want a pension, or wants a different kind of pension, their status as a free citizen should give them that right.

The “soft paternalist” solution is to have a government-mandated pension scheme, but allow individuals to opt-out of it after signing the appropriate amount of paperwork. Most people, the theory goes, would remain in the pension scheme, because they understand they’re better off with a pension and it was only laziness that prevented them from getting one before. And anyone who actually goes through the trouble of opting out of the government scheme would either be the sort of intelligent person who has a good reason not to want a pension, or else deserve what they get2.

This also reminds me of Robin’s IQ-gated, test-requiring would-have-been-banned store, which would discourage people from certain drugs without making it impossible for the true believers to get their hands on them. I suggest such a store be located way on the outskirts of town accessible only by a potholed road with a single traffic light that changes once per presidential administration, have a surly clerk who speaks heavily accented English, and be open between the hours of two and four on weekdays.


1: See Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. In fact, do this anyway. It’s very good.

2: Note also the clever use of the status quo bias here.