Question Your Darlings
Sometimes, the things we love most are the most likely to screw us over
Of all the explanations for America’s rising political polarization, my favorite is that Congress became too transparent.
At first, this theory sounds absolutely galaxy-brained. Our horrible, incompetent Congress, with approval ratings lower than gas station sushi, is too transparent? And that’s why your uncles are embroiled in political flamewars on Facebook?
Yes, it sounds insane. But the more you read about it, the more it makes sense.
First, the people proposing the theory are legit.
David King, a senior public policy professor at Harvard, and Frances Lee, a political science professor at Princeton, are two academics warning that 1970s “Sunshine Laws” designed to increase Congressional transparency have led to more lobbyist influence and increased partisanship. Professors King and Lee could be Russian trolls, but it would be incredibly deep cover.
Second, their arguments are compelling.
Before the 1970s, Congress was a pitch-black box. As described by George Kennedy, “Virtually all the meetings at which bills were actually written or voted on were closed to the public.”1 Not only was the public excluded from committee meetings; they couldn’t even see how individual members of Congress voted on a given bill. They only knew final vote counts. The public didn’t even have to the option to be bored by CSPAN.
In the 1970s, Congress and state legislatures began a series of reforms to increase transparency and let the public see how the sausage was made. They swung open the doors on previously-closed committee meetings. Where before Congresspeople could hide their votes, it became required — or at least very likely — that individual votes would be recorded. What was once a blackbox became a clear glass case.
Sounds like a good thing, right?
Sure, Professors King and Lee say, it sounds good. But in actuality, they say, it causes problems.
Paradoxically, one of the best descriptions of the problems with Congressional transparency comes from… publicly available Congressional testimony provided by Professor Lee. She says:
My goal today is to point to some of the unanticipated consequences of prior transparency reforms and to recommend that you consider how transparency negatively affects deliberative processes. Transparency burdens deliberation in two key ways: one, it empowers organized groups to press their demands in the legislative process; two, it tends to divert congressional discourse outward toward messaging rather than toward problem solving.
In other words, by making Congress’s inner workings visible to everyone:
interest groups like the NRA, unions, big pharma, big anything, can easily see how Congress votes and pressure them accordingly.
Congress members are incentivized to grandstand to appeal to their voters, instead of compromising in the name of fixing things.
When I think about my relationship with Congressional hearings and votes, this makes a lot of sense.
First, I’m interested in politics, and I still never watch Congressional hearings. They’re boring! Who wants to watch an economist drone on about manufacturing regulations in front of a gaggle of octogenarians?
While you may think the answer is “nobody”, the correct answer is actually “manufacturing lobbyists”. They watch these hearings like it’s their job because it is their job. They need to know Congresspeople think about and vote on regulations, who they (the lobbyists) can pressure to favor their manufacturing mega-conglomerate. Transparency laws were a godsend for them.
Second, when I do watch a Congressional hearing, I do so because there’s a big, juicy fiasco. Maybe Congress is confirming a Supreme Court justice and Twitter is blowing up about them. Maybe there’s a scandal because the President tried to blackmail Ukraine into investigating his political rival’s son, just hypothetically, obviously that would be crazy. Regardless, when I watch, I’m not looking for information. I’m looking for someone to tear apart my political enemies.
In these situations, the public visibility does not incentivize Congress to be level-headed or to compromise. It incentivizes them to be memorable. Their base is watching and expects them to eviscerate the opposition. A publicized Congressional hearing is not a time to strike a deal; it’s a time to strike the opposition in the jugular.
The Congressional Research Institute points out that, when the Sunshine Laws were enacted, there was no real evidence that they would improve the Congressional process. On the contrary, they say that the transparency laws have done a lot of damage. They cite NYU law professor Richard Pildes, who says:
After the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act required that congressional committee meetings be public, surveys of senators soon concluded that these open meeting requirements were the largest single cause of a decline in the ability to negotiate and to make politically difficult trade-offs.
The institute elsewhere cites numbers suggesting that lobbying skyrocketed during the 1970s (in their view, as a result of the transparency laws). Perhaps most strikingly, “between 1971 and 1982, the number of firms with registered lobbyists in Washington grew from 175 to 2,445.” and “The number of lobbyists for corporations in Washington grew from 8,000 to 15,000 between 1974 and 1978”.2
So while it’s not 100% certain, heavy academic firepower backs the idea that transparency laws increased lobbying influence and political polarization.
But I still struggle to say, “let’s make Congress less transparent.” Even if the evidence was 100% certain, I feel uncomfortable with the idea.
Transparency seems almost axiomatically good. Even if it has some downsides, don’t we want to know what our government is doing? Isn’t that good, just by definition?
In 1960, the Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen discovered that he could trick herring gulls into preferring fake plaster eggs over their own real eggs.
Tinbergen created fake eggs that were, in some sense, even better than the real thing. They were larger, more intensely colorful, had exaggerated markings, or a combination of the above. When given a choice between sitting on their own eggs and these giant, gaudy fake eggs, the gulls preferred the fakes.
It goes something like this: the gulls have an internal heuristic that identifies their eggs based on size, shape, color, markings, etc. Evolution engrained in the gulls to sit on things that meet this criteria for ‘egg’.
But this heuristic has limits. There weren’t many giant fake, bright plaster eggs in nature, so the heuristic is only tuned in one direction: bigger, brighter, more extravagant eggs trigger it more. The egg can get unnaturally large or colorful, and the gulls suspect anything. In fact, as the egg gets bigger, more colorful, or more patterned, the more the gulls want to sit on it.
So when the gulls see one of Tinbergen’s fake but extremely large, colorful, patterned eggs, they think “Holy shit, that’s the most egg I’ve ever seen!” and sit on it like their whole gene pool depends on it. Sadly, even when doing so means neglecting their real eggs.
This phenomenon is called supernormal stimulus, and it’s all over the animal kingdom. Baby birds peck more consistently at a really bright red spot mimicking their mother’s mouth than they will at their real mother’s mouth. Male stickleback fish will more aggressively attack fake — but brightly red-colored — “rival” stickleback fish. In the ultimate simp move, male butterflies will try to mate with “monochromatic orange paper models” over actual female butterflies.3
In short, a supernormal stimulus is something that tricks animal brains by playing up a feature the brain likes. Bigger eggs, redder bellies, and hot hot monochromatic orange pieces of paper.
If you’re feeling smarter than the rest of the animal kingdom right now, realize that people also fall for supernormal stimulus.
Do you love junk food? It’s supernormal stimulus based on our heuristic to get more sugar, more salt, and more fat.
Ever notice how characters with comically large eyes are just adorable?
Supernormal stimulus at it again. This time courtesy of cartoonists taking advantage of our brain’s natural affinity for baby-like traits.
The way YouTube videos show hyper-exaggerated reaction faces in the thumbnail? Supernormal stimulus playing to our preference for emotion. Social media? Supernormal stimulus for social validation. Porn? Supernormal stimulus for sexual arousal. The internet in general? Supernormal stimulus for our brain’s ultimate, favorite heuristic: sweet sweet hits of dopamine.
All of our preferences — for sugar, for big baby eyes, for emotional reactions, for sex, for dopamine — made sense in an earlier world where these things were in short supply. Sugar and fat are energy. Big eyes are a baby to care for. Paying attention to strong emotional reactions is crucial for social survival. Sex is sex. And dopamine, the purest of them all, just tells you keep doing what you’re doing. So of course our brains seeks them all out.
While evolution taught our brains these preferences, it never had much reason to provide an off-switch. As a caveman, you could only find sugar in meager portions in the natural world, so always wanting more was a good-enough heuristic. There was no evolutionary advantage to wanting just one cookie. Your brain says sugar = energy = good, and it worked pretty well for 99% of human history.
But now that we can create whatever we want, only wanting more is dangerous. It turns out there is a limit on how much sugar, or fat, or social media, or porn, one person should consume. People’s bodies literally rot because they can’t process the amount of sugar they consume. Excess use of social media is strongly linked to feelings of isolation and depression.4
For most supernormal stimuli, we need to limit ourselves. Our poor primitive brains only know to want more, even when we know that in the long-term, having more will harm us. The more-evolved part of us has to decide if we actually need more of the thing we crave.
In adulthood, I’ve started to feel similarly about personality traits.
I pride myself on being reasonable. Roughly, my ‘being reasonable’ means being logical, thoughtful, careful, and understanding. When I do something, I want to have thought it through. When I change my mind, I want to be able to describe why. When I disagree with someone, I need to be sure I understand their view.
Striving to be reasonable has generally worked out pretty well. I instinctively understand and empathize with other people. Being reasonable gives me a clear picture of the world, which can be helpful for navigating it. Friends will say “you’re so reasonable!”, which doesn’t really matter but feels nice.
But sometimes, being maximally reasonable is a bad strategy.
In conversation, I would always think about what I wanted to say before responding. I didn’t want to rush in with some knee-jerk reaction that might hurt someone’s feeling, or say something factually inaccurate. I would be considerate and precise, I thought.
Instead, I came across stilted and wishy-washy. I sounded almost like a bad politician — in trying to think through my responses, I became afraid to say anything that someone might disagree with. I ended up taking forever to say anything, and then saying nothing interesting.
Or, let’s say I want to buy a new mattress. I don’t want to willy-nilly buy whatever. No, I do my research. I go to a mattress store and test some out. But they won’t let you sleep on the mattresses overnight, the bastards, so how can you know what it feels like to sleep on it for hours? Or months? I scour r/mattresses, and have an extremely hard time telling apart real testimonials from secret-Casper-marketing testimonials. I get a membership to Consumer Reports. The internet has bottomless information on mattresses, so I plunge deeper into it, trying to find the right answer. Months later, I finally make a decision. But despite all that time and bad sleep, the final decision is somewhat arbitrary. There’s only so much you can know in advance.
I viewed myself as being reasonable here. After all, I was being thoughtful, careful, and logical. But I never stopped and asked myself: was all this thoughtful, careful, logical research actually helping?
A big part of my adult life has been learning that sometimes, being maximally reasonable isn’t good. You need to make a gut decision, reason be damned. You want to freely banter with people, not triangulate the best thing to say. You don’t want to spend your life trying to figure out the math proof for something that has no right answer. Reason is a great tool, but it can’t the only one.
In my head, being reasonable was tantamount to being good. Being more reasonable, more of the time, was the same as being a better person, I thought. Being reasonable was my own, personal supernormal stimulus — more was always better, even when it made my life worse.
I see friends and coworkers struggle with their own versions of this.
One friend is an extremely considerate person. She would be the first person to clean dishes, to volunteer to go to the store, to pick someone up from the airport. When someone went out of town, she’d offer to dogsit or catsit. She hated dogsitting and catsitting. Yet she volunteered. She’d offer to give her homemade cocktail to someone who would never do the same, even though she really does want the cocktail and it will piss her off later that she gave it away. She was maximally considerate, and it was a huge problem for her.
(This friend is still extremely considerate, but now has much healthier balance upon recognizing this tendency.)
The virtues that we cherish most become more than good qualities; they become the definition of good. Once a virtue becomes good by definition, we can’t imagine doing less of it. Why would I ever want to be less reasonable, or less considerate, or whatever it is for us? We end up with a ratchet effect. The virtue becomes a goal in itself, where we can only embody it more.
In doing so, we fail to see when the virtue is the source of our problems. Even if it’s making us indecisive, wishy-washy, or straight-up unhappy, we keep doing it. We’re blinded by the virtue’s good qualities, unable to see that we have too much of a good thing.
To go one step further, I think the same thing can happen on a society-wide level.
Transparency is one of those things that just sounds good. Unimpeachable, even. Obviously we want transparency in our government. The alternative is shadowy, smoke-filled backrooms where Senators propose and unanimously ratify bills raising their salaries, back-and-forth forever.
It sounds so good that, even after hearing the smartest political scientists say “hey, transparency actually might be causing problems, including the current insane political polarization”, I feel uncomfortable asking for less transparency.
This discomfort isn’t baseless. Obviously, there is a lot of good in transparency. We do need to make sure our elected official aren’t just giving themselves endless money. There needs to be accountability in government; there needs to be oversight.
But at the same time, we can’t treat transparency as though more is always better. The goal is to have a functioning, successful government and society, and transparency is one of the tools we have to help achieve that. If transparency is actually harming that goal by incentivizing grandstanding and making politicians afraid to deviate from an insane party line, we need to consider that less transparency in the right places might actually be a good thing.
I’m picking on transparency here, but I think this phenomenon extends to other concepts.
This is a bigger argument than I can squeeze into the end of this blogpost, but I’d argue that our bottomless love of democracy has also led us astray.
Under the premise that more democracy is good and therefore direct democracy is best, states like California have instituted initiatives and referendums in which voters directly vote on bills. More power to the people is better, the thinking goes.
Unfortunately, the actual result is a bit of a clusterfuck. These ballot initiatives are big, complicated policy proposals that address a huge range of issues. It would take each voter weeks of research to really understand all the proposals and their ramifications. I would be shocked if the average voter spends more than 30 minutes on each initiative. I certainly don’t! And I’m interested in this stuff.
Worse, it turns out that getting an initiative passed largely comes down to the money spent on it. As Fareed Zakaria writes:5
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the initiative and referendum movement has been its unexpected relationship to money in politics. Initially devised to remove public policy from the improper influence of big business, direct democracy has become and arena in which only the wealthiest of individuals and interest groups get to play.
So to remove the influence of powerful lobbyists, initiatives and referendums have created a new arena for powerful lobbyists, but now, the people voting on it have no time to understand what they’re voting on.
As with transparency, this is absolutely not to say democracy is bad. It’s to say that if you conflate “more democracy” with “a better society”, you’ll end up pushing for democracy even when it might actually make things worse.
In fact, the things we love most may be the most likely to screw us over because we love them so much. Everything else we question, we challenge, and we change if it seems remotely possible that it’s harming us. But the things we love most are above suspicion. They go unquestioned, unchallenged and unchanged.
Worse, there’s a ratchet effect in place for them. We can’t bring ourselves to have less of them — they’re good things! — so we only ever end up with more. And you can bet that by endlessly ratcheting up even the best things, you’ll eventually hit a point where they start harming you.
Whether they’re on the individual level or the societal level, question the things that seem most unassailably good to you. Ask: are they helping me achieve my goals? Are they helping you be happy, to live a fulfilling life, to have a functioning society? Or have you become so enamored with them that you didn’t notice that they pushed your original goal out a window and are living in its place?
Be vigilant. Question your darlings, or they might get you first.
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Quote courtesy of David King’s and James DeAngelo’s article on “The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970” at the Congressional Research Institute.
From “The 1970s Sunshine Reforms and the Transformation of Congressional Lobbying” By Brent Ranalli, James D’Angelo, and David King.
“Implications of insect responses to supernormal visual releasing stimuli in intersexual communication and flower-visiting behaviour: A review” in the European Journal of Entomology.
There’s still debate about this relationship, but I find the case pretty compelling. To hear it, check out this Ezra Klein interview with psychology professor Jean Twenge or this earlier article of hers.
From Zakaria’s book, “The Future of Freedom”, page 196.