In 2003, Saddam Hussein refused to let Iraqi weapons scientists leave the country to be interrogated. Given the overwhelming domestic support for an invasion at the time, most key figures in the U.S. took that as confirmation that he had something to hide — probably an active WMD program.

But what about alternative explanations? Maybe those scientists knew about past crimes. Or maybe they’d defect. Or maybe giving in to that kind of demand would have humiliated Hussein in the eyes of enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

According to today’s guest Robert Wright, host of the popular podcast The Wright Show, these are the kinds of things that might have come up if people were willing to look at things from Saddam Hussein’s perspective.

He calls this ‘cognitive empathy’. It’s not feeling-your-pain-type empathy — it’s just trying to understand how another person thinks.

He says if you pitched this kind of thing back in 2003 you’d be shouted down as a ‘Saddam apologist’ — and he thinks the same is true today when it comes to regimes in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

The two Roberts in today’s episode — Bob Wright and Rob Wiblin — agree that removing this taboo against perspective taking, even with people you consider truly evil, could potentially significantly improve discourse around international relations.

They feel that if we could spread the meme that if you’re able to understand what dictators are thinking and calculating, based on their country’s history and interests, it seems like we’d be less likely to make terrible foreign policy errors.

But how do you actually do that?

Bob’s new ‘Apocalypse Aversion Project’ is focused on creating the necessary conditions for solving non-zero-sum global coordination problems, something most people are already on board with.

And in particular he thinks that might come from enough individuals “transcending the psychology of tribalism”. He doesn’t just mean rage and hatred and violence, he’s also talking about cognitive biases.

Bob makes the striking claim that if enough people in the U.S. had been able to combine perspective taking with mindfulness — the ability to notice and identify thoughts as they arise — then the U.S. might have even been able to avoid the invasion of Iraq.

Rob pushes back on how realistic this approach really is, asking questions like:

  • Haven’t people been trying to do this since the beginning of time?
  • Is there a really good novel angle that will move the needle and change how a lot of people think and behave?
  • Wouldn’t it be better to focus on a much narrower task, like getting more mindfulness and meditation and reflectiveness among the U.S. foreign policy elite?

But despite the differences in approaches, Bob has a lot of common ground with 80,000 Hours — and the result is a fun back-and-forth about the best ways to achieve shared goals.

This is a crossover episode, also appearing on The Wright Show, with Bob and Rob taking turns interviewing each other.

Bob starts by questioning Rob about effective altruism, and they go on to cover a bunch of other topics, such as:

  • Specific risks like climate change and new technologies
  • How to achieve social cohesion
  • The pros and cons of society-wide surveillance
  • How Rob got into effective altruism
  • And much more

If you’re interested to hear more of Bob’s interviews you can subscribe to The Wright Show anywhere you’re getting this one. You can also watch videos of this and all his other episodes on Bloggingheads.tv.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

Highlights

The Apocalypse Aversion Project

Bob Wright: The Apocalypse Aversion Project is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, though not as tongue-in-cheek as I’d like, because I do think there’s a real risk of things going horribly awry. And it’s kind of an extension of my book Nonzero, which had this whole argument about looking at all of human history as an exercise in game theory, and as new technology is coming along, people often deploying it to successfully play non-zero-sum games, sometimes zero-sum games, whatever, but anyway, by the end of the book, I’m arguing that where we are now is on the threshold of global community, you could say.

Bob Wright: My book had charted the growth in the scope and depth of social complexity, from hunter-gatherer village to ancient city state, ancient state, empire nation state. Increasingly we are close to having what you could call a global social organization, and as has happened in the past, there’s non-zero-sum logic behind moving to a higher level of social organization — in the sense that there are a number of problems that the world faces that can be described as non-zero-sum relationships among nations. Climate change is one. Addressing it is, broadly speaking, in the interest of nations everywhere. Different nations are impacted differently by climate change, but still, the average nation is better off by cooperating on this, and even sacrificing to some extent, so long as other nations agree to sacrifice. You bring the non-zero-sum problem to a win-win solution. All the problems I’ve been describing, I think, are like that.

Bob Wright: A nuclear arms race is like that. You can both save money and reduce the chances of catastrophe by exercising mutual restraint. That’s what an arms agreement is. And I now think we’re going to see… Again, we need to think about whole new kinds of arms races, bioweapons, weapons in space, human genetic engineering is an arms race. AI is an arms race. The idea grows out of my whole Nonzero Project.

The psychology of tribalism

Bob Wright: My view is that it definitely is important to start thinking about what the solutions to these problems would look like. In some cases it’s very challenging, but at the same time, we need to recognize that right now the world’s political system is not amenable by and large to implementing the solutions anyway, and there’s another big thing that has to happen, aside from figuring out how to solve the problems: creating a world where there is less intense competition among nations, less suspicion among them, and also less strife within them. The United States is in no position to agree to anything ambitious on the international front. We just don’t have our act together politically. And to deepen the challenge, one of the big political factions — the ethno-nationalist faction — is very suspicious of this whole international governance thing, international institutions, international agreements.

Bob Wright: So, it seems to me that we have to work to reduce the amount of international strife and the amount of domestic strife, and I think the problems we face there can largely be subsumed under the heading ‘the psychology of tribalism.’ That’s a catchphrase. Some people don’t like the phrase for various reasons, and some of these reasons are good, but people know what I mean. I don’t just mean rage and hatred and violence. Unfortunately, in a way, the problem is subtler than that.

Bob Wright: It gets down to cognitive biases, confirmation bias, and a bias that I think gets too little attention called attribution error, which we can talk about if we have time. But the point is, we are naturally inclined — I would say by natural selection, which I wrote about in my book The Moral Animal — to just have a biased accounting system. People naturally think they contributed more to a successful project than they did. They think they have more valid grievances than the other side. And this plays out at the level of political parties, at the level of nations, and so on. And so, I think we have to tackle what is in some ways a psychological problem, as we tackle the policy problems. And that’s maybe what’s a little distinctive about the focus as I see where I think my project is heading.

How realistic is this approach?

Rob Wiblin: If we could get people to be more thoughtful, more careful in how they acted, more careful in how they thought about things, less reactive, potentially I guess less vengeful, more inclined towards cooperation… It seems like it would put us in a much better position, or you’d be more optimistic about humanity’s prospects, I guess. If I’m applying my kind of mindset where I’m trying to analyze, is this the thing that I would want to spend my career on? My main concern is just that it seems like a really heavy lift. People have been trying to encourage people to have these virtues since the beginning of… I guess since there were written records. People aren’t all bad, and we have made a bunch of progress in civilizing ourselves and finding ways to control our worst instincts.

Rob Wiblin: But I suppose if I was one person considering using my career on this, I’d think, “Do I have a really good angle that’s different, or that I think is really going to move the needle and change how a lot of people think or how a lot of people behave?” I might go into it if I did have an idea for that, for something that would make a difference given that there’s lots of people already talking about this, or it’s a kind of one-end problem. But yeah, it seems like it could be hard. Just saying the things that have been said many times before, I’m not sure how much that is going to change global culture.

Bob Wright: You’re right. People have been saying this forever. And you’re right, we’ve made progress. And yet, I was just reading this book on the origins of World War I. It’s called The Sleepwalkers, and here’s a line from it. It says, “This was a world in which aggressive intentions were always assigned to the opponent and defensive intentions to oneself.” So this is in large part how the war got started. When they mass troops, it’s a threat and maybe we should stage a preemptive strike. When we mass troops, it’s just defense. First of all, what that shows is that failing to correct for a fundamental natural human cognitive bias can get millions of people killed, and also that we actually haven’t made much progress. Look at international affairs today and look at how in the American media, the behavior of say Iran, China, and Russia — probably the three countries most consistently considered adversaries — look at the way their behavior is reported in the American media, as opposed to the way America’s behavior is reported.

Bob Wright: When they talk about American military maneuverings, it’s always defensive. Moreover, there’s always reporting about the political constraints that make it hard for our leaders to behave more charitably on the international front, so you generally don’t see that in the foreign reporting. So, you’re right, it’s a heavy lift, but if you’re interested in this category of problems, these quasi-existential threats, well, you’re in for a heavy lift. The whole nature of the thing is… In other words, it’s a kind of intervention that may have a low probability of success but the magnitude of the success is so high. If you succeed, it still has what economists call a high expected return. So, that’s the nature of the endeavor, so I’m sticking with it.

Mindfulness

Rob Wiblin: If we narrow down the approach, or the problem a little bit, then maybe we’ll be able to get more leverage on this. So, if the project was to get more mindfulness and meditation and reflectiveness among the U.S. foreign policy elite, to me, that sounds like a better project because it’s hard to change any single one person’s personality. It’s a whole bunch of work to convince people to meditate every day, and a lot of people don’t stick with it. So, we want each person who we convince to generate a lot of value in terms of making the world more stable. If you could just get the U.S. president doing it, or other military decision makers, then that seems like it carries a bigger punch.

Bob Wright: Yeah, and I’m an advocate of mindfulness. For example, in the case of social media, if you’re doing mindfulness meditation, trying hard to be in touch with the way your feelings are guiding your thoughts and so on, you’re probably more likely on social media to pause before re-tweeting something just because it makes you feel good, just because it seems to validate your tribe or diminish the other tribe, re-tweeting it without even reading the thing you’re re-tweeting, you’re less likely to do that. You’re less likely to react in anger, and there’s a lot of subtler things that you’re less likely to do. So, I’m an advocate of all that. At the same time, even I wouldn’t want the world’s fate to depend on convincing all the world’s leaders to be mindful. In addition, there’s the fact that in a way, strictly speaking, mindfulness is a neutral tool.

Bob Wright: I think it does tend to make us better people, better citizens. At the same time, you can, in principle, use mindfulness as a cognitive skill to do bad things. I do talk about mindfulness in the newsletter. I wouldn’t want to confine our repertoire to that. And so there are other things I like to emphasize, like cognitive empathy. It’s not feeling-your-pain-type empathy. It’s just understanding, trying to understand your perspective. So, to get back to the World War I case, it would be like working very hard to really understand why this other country is doing what it’s doing.

Bob Wright: There’s actually a recent example, fairly recent, of Russia massing troops on the Ukrainian border. I don’t applaud that. There’s a lot of things Russia has done that I don’t applaud, but it does seem to be the case that there had been a massing of Ukrainian troops on this dividing line where there’s a de facto division, and it’s just good to know. It doesn’t justify it. It’s just good to know, it doesn’t mean they’re planning to attack. Apparently they were sending a signal, like don’t even think about it, and then they withdrew their troops. So, I can imagine, just leave aside whether you’re interested in mindfulness, just programs in trying to convince people of the importance of cognitive empathy. And it can have very self-serving value. It can make you better at negotiating things and trying to make people better at it, I guess.

Attribution error

Bob Wright: When somebody does something good or bad, do you say to yourself, “Well, yeah, that’s the kind of person they are,” or do you say, “Well, they did that because of extenuating circumstances.” Say you’re in a checkout line and somebody in front of you is rude to the clerk. Do you say, “That guy’s a jerk, what a rude person,” or do you say, “Well, maybe he just got some super bad news about his family or something, and he’s just in a bad mood. He’s stressed out for some reason.”

Bob Wright: The pattern in human cognition is that when we’re talking about friends and allies, or ourselves, and they do something good, we attribute it to the kind of people they are, to their character, their disposition. If they do something bad, we explain it away. “Oh, there’s peer group pressure.” “She didn’t have her nap that day,” whatever. With our enemies and rivals, if they do something bad, we attribute it to the kind of people they are. If they do something good, we say, “Oh, they were just showing off,” or “They had just done some ecstasy or something,” whatever. It doesn’t reflect their true character.

Bob Wright: So in this tribal context, you look at Trump supporters and they do something you think is bad, like they oppose immigration, and you say, “Well, yeah. They’re racist.” Well, they may be. Some are, some aren’t. It depends on how you define racism and a whole lot of other things, but the point is, once you’ve defined somebody as the adversary, you’re naturally inclined to attribute the things they do that you don’t approve of to their character, as opposed to saying, “Well, maybe this is a guy who grew up, got a good union job, and now his son can’t get a good job, and he looks at the local meatpacking plant, and it’s all immigrants doing the work.” It could be that. We don’t know.

Rob Wiblin: I can’t remember where I heard this, but apparently if you ask people to talk about a time that they wronged someone else or harmed someone else, there’s basically almost always exactly the same story structure. It’ll begin with several days before, all of the mitigating circumstances, and how they affected… But of course, we don’t come up with those stories whenever someone else screws us over.

Bob Wright: That’s exactly right.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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