Lazy people, nice people, crazy people, happy people.

Here’s a question.  When we describe people using the adjectives in the title of this post, are we describing the way they are, or they way they behave?  We have deeply ambivalent views in this area, which on close examination are probably incoherent.  Much of our social interaction is based on shared myths, which shrivel under the bright light of scientific scrutiny.  Even the language we use is subtly inconsistent with the scientific method.  For instance, consider one of society’s monsters, say a Hitler, Mao, or Osama.  Suppose someone says “I know how he felt when he committed his crimes.”  Most people would take that as condoning the crimes, even though from a scientific perspective there’s no logical connection between knowing why a person acted a certain way, and condoning their behavior.

I was reading a book about genetic engineering called “Babies by Design,” and was struck when Ronald Green claimed:

Research shows that obesity is consistently attributed to laziness and a lack of self-discipline.

In reality, the truth may be just the opposite.  Studies of identical twins reared together or apart indicate that much obesity may be caused by hereditary factors.  In technical terms, the heritability of obesity, the percentage of observed variation among people that is attributed to genes, is very high, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent.

[Before continuing, a disclaimer so that I am not misunderstood.  I have good genes for being thin.  If I didn’t I assume I’d be fat, as I don’t have much self-control.  So the following should not be viewed as criticism of fat people.]

Do you see the problem with Green’s assertion?  He asks us to believe that just because obesity is 80% genetic, it can’t also be 80% due to laziness.  But why?  What are those two hypotheses viewed as mutually exclusive?  Is it because genetic characteristics are viewed as “not one’s fault,” whereas laziness is viewed as a character flaw?  But why shouldn’t character flaws be genetic?

A new study has found a “kindness gene.”  It seems that some people are born kind and some are born “bad to the bone.”

People with a certain gene trait are known to be more kind and caring than people without it, and strangers can quickly tell the difference, according to US research published on Monday.

The variation is linked to the body’s receptor gene of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” because it often manifests during sex and promotes bonding, empathy and other social behaviors.

Scientists at Oregon State University devised an experiment in which 23 couples, whose genotypes were known to researchers but not observers, were filmed.

One member of the couple was asked to tell the other about a time of suffering in his or her life. Observers were asked to watch the listener for 20 seconds, with the sound turned off.

In most cases, the observers were able to tell which of the listeners had the “kindness gene” and which ones did not, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences edition of November 14.

Should we no longer praise people for being kind?  No, we should praise them, but if we were to use Green’s logic then meanness would no longer be viewed as the person’s fault, because we’ve discovered that it’s genetic.

And happiness is also genetic, according to an article in The Economist:

Serotonin is involved in mood regulation. Serotonin transporters are crucial to this job. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants””long and short. The long one produces more transporter-protein molecules than the short one. People have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. So some have two short alleles, some have two long ones, and the rest have one of each.

The adolescents in Dr De Neve’s study were asked to grade themselves from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. Dr De Neve found that those with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied; those with two long alleles were 17% more likely.

That’s already pretty disturbing, but then consider the following:

Which is interesting. Where the story could become controversial is when the ethnic origins of the volunteers are taken into account. All were Americans, but they were asked to classify themselves by race as well. On average, the Asian Americans in the sample had 0.69 long genes, the black Americans had 1.47 and the white Americans had 1.12.

That result sits comfortably with other studies showing that, on average, Asian countries report lower levels of happiness than their GDP per head would suggest. African countries, however, are all over the place, happinesswise. But that is not surprising, either. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent, because that is where humanity evolved (Asians, Europeans, Aboriginal Australians and Amerindians are all descended from a few adventurers who left Africa about 60,000 years ago). Black Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves carried away from a few places in west Africa, cannot possibly be representative of the whole continent.

Note how the alleged racial gaps in happiness are inversely correlated with average income in America.  Proof God is a utilitarian?

Seriously, if society insists on continuing to probe ever more deeply into human genetics, I think we need a whole new language for discussing ethical issues.  My suggestion is that scientists give up on all the comforting notions of “just deserts.”  Yes, proof that X% of behavior in genetic still allows for 100-x% to be environment.  But environment is also not the villain’s fault.

In my view the right way to handle all this is to ignore the question of whether anything is really a person’s fault, and consider the related question of whether certain behavior is changed by external incentives (including telling them that it is their fault.)  I don’t have any problem with obese or unhappy people, but I don’t like mean people.  So as long as there is evidence that mean people can be deterred from meanness by sanctions, I’ll continue to give them a hard time.  And no amount of genetic research will change my behavior in that regard.

However I do think all this research supports utilitarian ethics.  We utilitarians are sometimes criticized for caring equally about the happiness of the deserving and the undeserving.  This genetic research suggests that much of the variation in personality is genetic, and hence “not the person’s fault.”  The optimal policy (and I’m not proposing this) would be for an omniscient government to tax mean people $X dollars for each unit of mean behavior, and then rebate the entire amount of revenue in lump sums to everyone with a mean gene in their body.

Or in Christian terms we could say “love thine enemy, but also punch them in the nose every time they misbehave.”  Does that seem contradictory?  Then you are confusing behavior with character.

Because of genetic research our view of humanity and ethics in the year 2111 will be totally different from today, just as our current views are totally different from 100 years ago (when “progressives” often favored eugenics.)

What do I fear most?  Busybodies like this:

People who have two copies of the G allele are generally judged as more empathetic, trusting and loving.

Those with AG or AA genotypes tend to say they feel less positive overall, and feel less parental sensitivity. Previous research has shown they also may have a higher risk of autism.

.   .   .

However, no gene trait can entirely predict a person’s behavior, and more research is needed to find out how the variant affects the underlying biology of behavior.

“These are people who just may need to be coaxed out of their shells a little,” said senior author Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University whose previous research established the genetic link to empathetic behavior.

“It may not be that we need to fix people who exhibit less social traits, but that we recognize they are overcoming a genetically influenced trait and that they may need more understanding and encouragement.”

Keep your %&#@$*& hands off my anti-social traits.  Remember what Greta Garbo said.

And then there is mental illness.  Here’s Reason magazine explaining that crazy is as crazy does:

Metzl is not interested in such distinctions. “Schizophrenia is shaped by social, political, and, ultimately institutional factors in addition to chemical or biological ones,” he writes. “Too often, we assume that medical and cultural explanations of illness are distinct entities, or engage in frustratingly pointless debates about whether certain mental illnesses are either socially constructed or real.” He says “this polarizing dichotomy serves no one, and makes it harder to see how mental illness is always already both.”

It is hard to imagine someone making a similar speech about cancer or diabetes. “Unlike the conditions treated in most other branches of medicine,” observes Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, in a June New York Review of Books essay, “there are no objective signs or tests for mental illness””no lab data or MRI findings””and the boundaries between normal and abnormal are often unclear. That makes it possible to expand diagnostic boundaries or even create new diagnoses, in ways that would be impossible, say, in a field like cardiology.” In other words, mental illnesses are whatever psychiatrists say they are. If someone is diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia based on the currently accepted behavioral markers, assuming the criteria are correctly applied, it does not make sense to say he does not really have depression or schizophrenia, since there is no test to disconfirm the diagnosis. And if the criteria change so that they no longer apply to him, his disease disappears or becomes something else; it has no independent existence.

Music to my post-modern ears.

When I read “A Beautiful Mind” there was one aspect of John Nash’s behavior that I found strange.  Every so often he was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum.  Because he hated it there, he soon began to “act sane” so that they’d have to let him out.  And they did.  I don’t recall any of the book reviews noticing this, but doesn’t it seem a bit odd that someone who is mentally ill can act sane, given that acting crazy seems to be the only way to diagnose most mental illnesses?

I’m not saying Nash wasn’t “actually crazy.”  I’m saying that like all our other behavioral traits mental illness probably isn’t what we think it is.  I look forward to the day when all human vices are relabeled “mental illness.”  Then we can clear the decks and start over with the real question: Which behaviors can be changed through incentives and which cannot?  It’s all about economics.

PS. In comments Woupiestek provided the following:

You post reminds me of “drapetomania”:

Learn this from the British quiz QI. It comes up after 3 minutes in this fragment:

And around 7 minutes they start replicating this post.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  And why can’t America have TV shows like that?

Update: ChrisA points out that Bryan Caplan did discuss the John Nash case.



31 Responses to “Lazy people, nice people, crazy people, happy people.”

  1. Gravatar of OGT OGT
    20. November 2011 at 07:03

    A good post-modern post. One note on the genetic estimates of heritability, I think they’re not terribly useful and too often misunderstood.

    For example, height is often termed to be 90 percent heritable. But there’s a six inch difference in average height between North Koreans and South Koreans, a difference that has no basis in genetics. If we could perfectly control environment all differences would be genetic, if we radically alter developmental environements much less is, of course. So percentage estimates of heritability are meaningless for generalization.

  2. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    20. November 2011 at 07:27

    You post reminds me of “drapetomania”:

    Learn this form the British quiz QI. It comes up after 3 minutes in this fragment:

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. November 2011 at 07:29

    Thanks OGT, And of course you are right about heritability. The science in this post is sloppy; I was just having some fun.

  4. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    20. November 2011 at 07:54

    Years ago my mother rebelled at the idea of a ‘dysfunctional’ family. But the other day, she was quick to suggest the labeling of illness in hoarders, a ‘disease’ she has also been trying to overcome in recent years. She had watched a show where everything ‘unnecessary’ was left at the curb, but the person in their clean and neat home was grieving.

    The idea of possession itself is integral to everything I try to learn, for me it is a primary link between our mental state and our economic/social surroundings. It seems a primary challenge is in recreating the actual underlying needs of ownership and possession in our minds, instead of substituting those challenges with inferior models of possession.

    Genetics can certainly be helpful. Anytime we cook for someone with good longevity genes (the healthier choices they desire) it helps our own. Plus, watching my Dad and his mother (both skinny as a rail) eat whatever they desired, help me to see some of the fallacies in ‘food science’.

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. November 2011 at 07:56

    woupiestek, Thanks, I added it to the post.

    Becky, Good point.

  6. Gravatar of Peter N Peter N
    20. November 2011 at 09:09

    There’s no such thing as rational behavior, either. The brain makes decisions well before we have any feeling of having decided. Consciousness is largely an explanatory confabulation (vision is too, thus the rich variety of optical illusions and invisible gorillas).

    Now that we can watch the brain make decisions, we’re seeing things that are hard to reconcile with models of behavior we normally use. It seems life happens to quickly for true conscious control. Those few hundred extra milliseconds head start were life or death 100,000 years ago.

  7. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    20. November 2011 at 09:32

    Drapetomania makes me think of the map of social capital in the U.S. that was illustrated in the book, Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam. Slavery really knocked down social capital in the South.

  8. Gravatar of tim tim
    20. November 2011 at 09:37

    i saw a guy on tv recently who studies psychopaths. psychopaths have no empathy and no compassion and do not care about the consequences of there actions, which is why they are usually prolific liars, because they dont really care when their lies are exposed.
    many economists see crime from a perspective of incentives. do the rewards justify the risks? but psychopaths dont care about the negative consequences so the economic analysis of crime doesnt apply to them. thats probably why the death penalty isnt a deterrent, because many of the people who committ these crimes are psychopaths anyway.

  9. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    20. November 2011 at 09:53


    Oddly enough, one of the memes I hear now and again is that economic theory only has any “validity” if everyone was a psychopath.

  10. Gravatar of Dan S Dan S
    20. November 2011 at 10:08

    “However I do think all this research supports utilitarian ethics.”

    Scott, please forgive me if you’ve already done this elsewhere, but I would love it if you could describe your take on the meta-ethics of moral theories. I say this because when you say the research “supports” utilitarianism as if we are trying to look for the “correct” ethical theory. But as we all know there is no scientific evidence for the existence of intrinsic value or “shoulds” floating around in the universe. Out of all the bloggers I have always found you to be the most sensible, so I’d love to know what exactly you mean when you support one theory over the other.

  11. Gravatar of Bret Bret
    20. November 2011 at 10:09

    You are a bit off an odd duck.

    I’m sorry, is that mean? 🙂

  12. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    20. November 2011 at 11:37

    Having been here since post seven, this was a nice change of pace. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    20. November 2011 at 12:00

    My mother was one of fraternal twins. Her sister was ever happy and upbeat. My mother has been depressed her whole life. They were raised side by side.

    Both were successful in life, but my mother could not keep a husband, while my aunt stayed with her’s until she died. My mother made all of her husbands miserable.

    Happily for me, I inherited some of my father’s genes. But I suspect many of us have demons “in our blood,” that we have to manage. And largely by luck of the draw.

    That said, there was an absolutely scary series in the New York Review of Books regarding mood drugs, about three months back. I hardily recommend it for anybody, especially those considering treatment. No drugs is probably the best course of action.

    I always found that lots of exercise and conversation is one key to happiness. And try to be upbeat for your mate, if you want to keep them.

    Everyone loves their dog. Guess why.

  14. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    20. November 2011 at 13:50

    Check out Greene & Cohen’s For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.

  15. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    20. November 2011 at 13:59

    Also, you talk about the Szaszian critique as being post-modern, when to me (as a modernist) it seems to implicitly rely on a standard of positivism and indict certain self-proclaimed scientific fields from holding up to the standards of others. So Szasz talks about syphilis and Alzheimer’s as being legitimate brain diseases, and says if claimed mental diseases cannot be attributed to a lesion or similar physical defect in the brain that can be objectively tested for, it’s just a bunch of “soul doctors” acting as priests under a facade of science. To a post-modernist, there is no such distinction between science and pseudo-science.

  16. Gravatar of Edwin Herdman Edwin Herdman
    20. November 2011 at 15:52

    Also check out this good Slate roundup of the current level of thinking (or lack thereof) amongst some neuroscientists on the topic of discussing and understanding gender differences:

    I didn’t have the time to read every last point in this blog post, but it struck me as a respectable and honest treatment of the problem. The tendency to moralize about genetic traits – both in the Mendelian and the Lamarckian senses! – that have allowed the race to survive does no honors to ancestors who had to wrestle with situations that did not always reward nice behavior.

    What is important about the scientific discourse and potential of gene therapy, taken along with the egalitarian tendencies of the modern democratic world, is that it lets us find a “better balance.” But any approach that attempts to simply generalize a “best” strategy or even worse simply view imbalances as “to be done away with” forgets that Darwinism does not imply egalitarianism wins out. Darwinism does not give any species a privileged position for piousness or its ability to win on the stock market. The only goal is to stay alive (with inherent changing conditions).

    We can question the historical tendency of evolution to be driven in part by individual, rather than group, genetic survival (i.e. infanticide is “bad” for group stability, but actually good – i.e. has utility – for individual competitiveness and individual genetic survival), but I agree with the blog author that you can’t simply view these in a naive fashion, thinking “good is good and bad is bad” without reflecting on what you mean and whether, in fact, the cold Universe cares what you think. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care, but it does lift the curtain on the scene we live in.

    Any playing around with genetics and calls for society to intervene to eliminate “antisocial” genes probably should be more biased towards preserving genetic diversity and, yes, even individual competitiveness. Even if it implies the capacity for violence (gasp! horrors!).

    The racial angle seems hard to come to grips with, but it’s not: If it may be the case that under the current system wealth is inversely correlated with the happiness gene (I’m not familiar with this so I’m treating it as a hypothetical), it may not always be true. Even if social preferences are for a society rewarding those who are bestowed with a certain genetic makeup, we cannot guarantee that these are the genes that will always be rewarded by the environment.

    It gets even crazier when you realize that wildly different kinds of species, like wasps and naked mole rats, are still family in both the layman’s sense but also in the sense that we share the same goal – survival of life, and the widest variety of genetic types of creature creates the widest possibilities for survival of life, i.e. look at great extinction events.

  17. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    20. November 2011 at 16:51

    It must be doubly hard to tease out correlation and causation in mental illness: how much is due to lack of effective contribution to one’s own environment, or just bad genes? While the idealist in me wants to believe that social inclusion can stop (certain) mental illness, there are still examples such as Einstein’s youngest son who eventually succumbed, despite everyone’s best efforts.

  18. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    20. November 2011 at 18:42

    Your thoughts on Nash, especially the ability to “act” sane have been explored by Szasz, see Bryan Caplan’s paper;

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. November 2011 at 19:17

    Peter, Yes, “the brain” makes decisions before “we” are aware of it, but what makes you think those decisions are not rational? And who is “we”? The one who makes the decision, or the one who later becomes aware of the decision?

    Becky, Is there less social capital in the South? I would have thought there is less in Boston.

    Tim, I don’t think they care about the welfare of others, but I’m quite certain they care about their own welfare, otherwise they’d all be in prison.

    Dan, Maybe no “scientific” evidence, but there is certainly evidence in favor of moral theories. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is evidence in favor the the proposition that slavery is evil.

    And many people oppose utilitarianism because they object to the fact that it implies we should worry about the welfare of undeserving people. If we find out that bad people are born that way, it makes them seem less undeserving.

    I have a pragmatic Rortian view of truth, evidence, science, etc, so I’m not too concerned about whether it meets some arbitrary methodological criterion. What matters is what’s persuasive to other thoughtful people.

    Bret, I don’t resent that, because I know you were just born that way.

    Thanks Jon. You are much nicer than Bret.

    Ben, I read that piece as well. I am not qualified to judge it’s accuracy, but it makes you wonder.

    TGGP, I never argued the Szaszian critique was post-modern. I said modern psychology is post-modern. It says we determine mental illnesses by behavior. I believe Szasz said mental illness doesn’t exist. That’s not my view and (you are correct) that it isn’t a post-modern view.

    Alternatively, both sides of the debate focus on whether mental illness “really” exists. To post-modernists that’s not the question. The question is whether mental illness is a useful category.

    Edwin, Very good observations.

    Becky, Yes, it’s almost impossible, as the two interact so closely.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. November 2011 at 19:26

    TGGP, Thanks for that paper. The Boys from Brazil example is a good one, and I entirely agree with their interpretation.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. November 2011 at 19:35

    ChrisA, Thanks, I added an update.

  22. Gravatar of Peter N Peter N
    20. November 2011 at 21:58

    Tricky word, rational. Let’s just say that our stated reasons are poorly correlated with observable reality, nor does this mean we have “lied”. Furthermore we satisfice rather than optimize. When we choose, the quality of our choices declines once the number of choices exceeds 3, even when the extra choice would improve the quality of the decision. We are heavily influenced by presentation and are easily confused by statistics.

    People will agree to surgery with a 95% chance of a good outcome and reject surgery with a 5% chance of a bad outcome. We have often strong tendencies to perseverate. We value an object we own considerably higher than an identical object we don’t. We can only reliably perform one task that requires attention at a time. The less we know about something the easier it is for us to form strong opinions about it and “logically” justify them.

    And, of course eye witness testimony is extremely unreliable. The environment we perceive is a construct – our private virtual reality. Our visual bandwidth and processing speed don’t permit anything else. Considering the limitations of the equipment our vision is amazingly good, but limitations there are. To compensate we have visual shortcuts like blind sight and optical preprocessing.

  23. Gravatar of Nevorp Nevorp
    21. November 2011 at 02:42

    You should try looking into the research on “Free will” – we don’t have any – now that is a real mind bender.

  24. Gravatar of Paul Zrimsek Paul Zrimsek
    21. November 2011 at 06:06

    This genetic research suggests that much of the variation in personality is genetic, and hence “not the person’s fault.”

    You do realize that word “hence” requires justification?

    “[N]euroscientists think the ability to fabricate colorful and misleading technicolor pictures of brains license them to philosophize with impunity.” — Will Wilkinson

  25. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    21. November 2011 at 06:37

    Here’s Bryan’s response:
    Also, Bowling Alone is but another in a long line of books which would convince everyone that – demographically speaking – the best place to be happy is Minnesota!

  26. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    21. November 2011 at 09:51

    Interesting post. However neither of the two studies you mention show a 100% correlation. What moral responsibility attaches to someone with genes for meanness, who is kind, or vice-versa? Or for genes for life satisfaction, what if someone lacks the long alleles but is satisfied anyway? Or has them but is dissatisfied?

  27. Gravatar of PrometheeFeu PrometheeFeu
    21. November 2011 at 10:52

    I have for a long time found that very strange. But let us not limit ourselves to moral failings. What about deserving good things? We admire things such as intelligence. I was born with a high level of intelligence. (It’s just a hypothetical) I am fairly young and I have already gotten countless compliments and admiration as a result. Yet, I was also born male, white, with blue eyes, etc… And I get no compliments for those qualities. Why is that? I think a simple answer might be what Scott was remarking above. We want to surround ourselves with smart people because having smart people around can come in handy. Complimenting them might simply be incentivising them to stick around.

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. November 2011 at 12:21

    Peter, A lot of sweeping generalizations, but it’s not clear what they have to do with rationality. Can we agree that:

    1. People are not omniscient Gods.
    2. People do the best they can, given the costs of decision-making?

    Nevorp, I’m not quite sure what “free will” is supposed to be. In any case, it doesn’t seem like a very useful concept. Let’s just say that people make decisions based on a variety of factors, internal and external. Rorty said:

    “That which has no practical implications, has no philosophical implications.”

    Free will doesn’t have any practical implications, so it doesn’t seem like a particularly useful concept. As to whether there “really is” free will, I’m inclined to say that there is no “really is” for anything, just stuff and concepts we perceive to be useful.

    Paul, Good point, I meant to say “not the person’s fault as most people look at things.” Later I emphasized that “fault” isn’t the right concept, it’s whether given behaviors can be deterred that matters.

    Becky, I grew up in Wisconsin, a state that is similar to Minnesota. I’d add that Minnesota was settled by Scandinavians, who tend to score highest in happiness rankings.

    Tracy, I agree that the correlation is far from perfect. It wasn’t my intent here to argue genetic determinism.

    Prometheefeu, Interesting idea.

  29. Gravatar of Assorted Links « azmytheconomics Assorted Links « azmytheconomics
    22. November 2011 at 21:08

    […] Drapetomania. Wow. Context here and […]

  30. Gravatar of Claudia Sahm Claudia Sahm
    26. November 2011 at 06:22

    We all fall somewhere on a physical and mental spectrum. I don’t find Nash’s behavior all that odd. Cancer patients have good days and bad days…there are some days when I manage to eat a carrot instead of cake and when manage to I keep my wacky opinions to myself or not. We all got dealt some “good” cards and some “bad” cards…something to be thankful for and something to work on.

  31. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    26. November 2011 at 07:31

    Claudia, Good point.

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