Why do social problems seem intractable?

Lorenzo directed me to an interesting study of human psychology. Here is the abstract:

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.”

This supports my recent post on risk aversion, as well as earlier posts on progress. It suggests there’s no one to “blame”, it’s just a part of what makes us human.

We’re stuck on a treadmill, and always will be.



6 Responses to “Why do social problems seem intractable?”

  1. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    11. February 2020 at 15:36

    If at the end of the day we’re all status seekers with relative utility functions then the only social gains we feel are the ones at others’ expense.

  2. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    11. February 2020 at 16:58

    I don’t have a lot of confidence in social science predictions, since they are subject to p-hacking (can’t be replicated). But if you’re into them, a fun book to read is the one below. Short 2-3 page chapters and each ‘behavioral economics’ phenomena clearly labeled. This particular Sumner post is Chapter 3, “Confirmation Bias”.

    David McRaney, “You Are Not So Smart” (2013).

    PS – my favorite chapter so far: Chap. 24, “Supernormal Releasers” Heading: THE MISCONCEPTION: Men who have sex with RealDolls are insane, and women who marry eighty-year-old billionaires are gold diggers. THE TRUTH: The RealDoll and rich old sugar daddies are both supernormal releasers. (defined by biological hormones)

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. February 2020 at 16:59

    Garrett, Yes.

  4. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    11. February 2020 at 22:13


    bingo, that’s the study I remembered when I commented on your risk aversion post. When risk becomes rare, what used to be seen as low risk now seems risky. etc. Or, like a moving, self-centering Overton window that always guarantees equal amount of outrage at the injustices of the world.

    Garrett, Scott,

    hence the attraction of leftism or any other kind of egalitarianism – at least, ensure that no one else has it better either. See also the importance of envy as the central motivation of social behavior, e.g. http://falkenblog.blogspot.com/2020/01/helmut-schoecks-envy.html

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. February 2020 at 08:38

    mbka, Thanks for the link. Yes, envy is part of the problem.

  6. Gravatar of Phil H Phil H
    16. February 2020 at 20:11

    I think Scott’s post is right, but there’s also a more optimistic spin to put on the difficulty of solving problems: the low-hanging fruit hypothesis. We’ve done the easy work, and the remaining social problems are just more difficult to solve.

    For example, the problem of racism or racial equality. The most basic, first-pass attempt at this is writing laws that say people of all races are equal. That work was only completed in the US within living memory, and it took a remarkable amount of strife just to get there. The next round of work on this problem will involve identifying and changing traditions and habits that reproduce racial difference. That sounds much harder, and I expect it to take much longer. But the very fact that it’s ongoing is reason for optimism.

    Similarly, on questions like, How technocratic vs democratic should the management of our economy be? We’re only just getting started. Ending price controls was the big first step, I reckon and that only happened in living memory. Subsequent steps will be more subtle and more politically fraught. Independence of central banks is really new. There’s another century of policy evolution to go before anything like a real answer to this question emerges.

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