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We need disagreeable people to fix our dishonest institutions

Eric Weinstein suggests institutions need individuals who can pass two famous psychological tests.

If You're Thinking Rationally, You’re Not Thinking Hard Enough
  • Eric Weinstein is a mathematician, economist and managing director of Thiel Capital.
  • In a recent interview with Rebel Wisdom, Weinstein spoke about the origins of the Intellectual Dark Web, and his theory of how our institutions are plagued by an "embedded growth obligation."
  • Disagreeable people, Weinstein says, could help institutions correct themselves.

We are living in a fever dream from which we cannot wake up, and it is because we cannot figure out whom to trust, says Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and economist who serves as the managing director of Thiel Capital.

This problem stems in part from two generations' worth of dishonesty — both subtle and obvious — from society's accepted experts, many of whom have been corrupted by their institutions' relentless drive to survive and continue growing, no matter the cost. It's from this problem, Weinstein suggests, that the Intellectual Dark Web emerged.

In 2018, Weinstein emerged as a prominent figure of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a term he coined, half in jest, to describe a group of individuals from various fields who hold – or at least are inclined to explore – heterodox ideas, mainly through alternative media like YouTube. The members of the IDW don't all share a political cause, but rather, Weinstein suggests, they share the personality trait of disagreeableness, or a willingness to stick to your beliefs even when it comes at a high cost.

In an interview recently published by Rebel Wisdom, a media group that regularly covers the IDW, Weinstein says this trait isn't just simple contrarianism – it's what many of our institutions need to survive the long term. That's because developed society has long been addicted to "high levels of broadly distributed, stable technology-led growth," Weinstein says, but that kind of growth can't continue forever. So, what happens when you deny people the ability to continue on the path to which they're so addicted?

"That means that you're set up, potentially for war, for civil unrest, for communism if people try to grab what their neighbor has, or fascism if people try to maintain order at all costs."

How did we get here? Weinstein suggests it's largely due to a phenomenon he calls the "embedded growth obligation."

"An embedded growth obligation is how fast a structure has to grow in order to maintain its honest positions," Weinstein says. "If you have a situation in which you have trial lawyers and they're supported by various associates, and the associates all want to become partners and trial lawyers themselves, then what you have is a situation where the law firm has to grow at a very fast clip if all those people are going to be satisfied with their job decisions. Well, very quickly that ability to grow runs out, and then people want to know, "Why am I stuck in a position going nowhere?"

Since the early 1970s, Weinstein says, this phenomenon has occurred in virtually every field, and it's helped produce institutions that are more concerned with growth and self-preservation than holding honest positions. The result is an altered incentive structure within institutions: Experts are rewarded for sustaining the institution, not necessarily for being honest or doing the best work in their field.

Individuals – disagreeable ones, in particular – could help save us from this mess.

"Individuals in very small groups are about the only thing that is free of the disease of the embedded growth obligation," Weinstein says. "And so, the paradox is that the individuals have to save the institutions that are trying to extinguish them, because the institutions don't want to hear this message. But in fact, if they don't make use of the tiny number of people functioning as individuals or in small organizations, all of this is going to collapse because it cannot continue along its current exponential path. It's like Wile E. Coyote running off of the cliff: As soon as he realizes that there's nothing hold him up, down we fall."

What kinds of individuals do institutions need?

Weinstein suggests the kinds of people who can help straighten out our institutions are those who'd pass (or fail, rather) two psychological tests:

  • The Asch conformity tests: In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch studied the effects of incorrect majority opinion on individuals. You've probably heard about it: One unwitting test subject is in a room with a handful of people, all of whom are in on the experiment. The experimenter shows the group a set of lines and asks them to say which ones are equal in length. The answer is instantly obvious. But all of the actors report the wrong answer, and, surprisingly, often the unwitting test subject does too, suggesting that most of us desperately want to conform to the group.
  • The Milgram experiment: In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments on obedience to authority figures. A researcher would ask a participant, who was told he was assisting in an unrelated experiment, to administer electric shocks to another participant (who was actually in on the experiment) in another room. Those getting "shocked" would scream and plea for the experiment to stop. But the researchers would tell the participant to keep administering the shocks, saying things like, "The experiment requires that you continue," even though, of course, they were free to stop at any point.

Weinstein says our institutions need people who can stand up to the pressures of conformity and authority.

"You want people who, when asked to push the buzzer to administer an electric shock, tell the experimenter to buzz off rather than the people who go along with it when they're assured that they will not be held personally responsible," he says.

Fixing our institutions is necessary before society can make real progress, Weinstein suggests, and a solution doesn't lie solely with the left or right.

"Nobody knows what to believe, nobody quite knows what's true, nobody knows where to turn. This is not a tenable situation. So, either we're going to descend into some kind of permanent chaos, or there's going to have to be something that we reboot from, and that thing cannot be simply left or simply right. And that's one of the reasons the IDW is hopeful to me."

Don't fit in? Here's why that's a good thing.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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