Culture, Limitations, Fixity

My Social Studies professor brought up a fairly terrifying example a while ago. Apparently in Fiji, every object is given a particular place in society, fully determining its uses and possibilities. Foreigners are (explicitly) allowed to do anything, and so if they teach you how to use a musket, you’re allowed to learn how to shoot it, but then if you want to use it as a weapon you have to use it as a club, because clubs are for killing. What you can do in general is also culturally enumerated, so for instance you can’t kill your chief because by definition the chief is able to kill you, and so if you tried to you would die. As an inevitable fact about the interactions of your different magics, rather than an empirical fact about the chief’s relative power and standing.

Apparently, culture can be arbitrarily limiting.

But wait! We’re totally post-Enlightenment westerners who know better, right?

I’m sort of worried about that.

In the (somewhat recent) past, there are a lot of examples to suggest otherwise. Part of the way that the Americans won the Revolutionary War was to try to shoot British officers. This was considered very rude and ungentlemanly at the time, and very much against the traditions of aristocratic officer corps. The Americans just happened not to have as much of an aristocracy, and so they cared less.

Similarly, in WWI and II, a major innovation was to use planes to drop bombs on supply lines. Prior to that, they had dogfights above trenches.

More clearly, part of the reason that Shaka Zulu was able to found his empire was by fighting to kill, rather than to fulfill ritual obligations.

Now to me, in retrospect, all of these seem like they would obviously work. But they apparently took a while to actually happen. Even when your life is on the line, it seems that people are mostly interested in following established cultural patterns of “tried and true” methods of how to do whatever it is that they’re trying to do, rather than asking themselves the causal question of how they could cause X to happen. Using imitation engines rather than their motor planning.

Those examples might be somewhat unfair, since maybe people don’t actually want to effectively fight. But there are more!

For instance, one of the reasons that Ben Franklin was a better printer than his contemporaries is that he wasn’t drunk the entire time he was learning to print. The other apprentices/journeymen made fun of him for it.

Is there any similarly low-hanging fruit? How could we tell?

From my life, it seems like “You can just email people you think are cool” is one. Seems like there’ve got to be others.


It seems weird that people might be doing things that badly, and so it’s probably worth explaining it somewhat. There are a couple of factors that seem relevant.


One reason is just that humans seem to process the world in terms of affordances — ways of acting upon an object to achieve a goal in a way that is associated with that object. For instance, a doorknob affords turning, and a cup affords drinking. This isn’t just a way of seeing things, but rather also an empirical cognitive fact. When people see objects regions of their motor cortex associated with the actions that that object affords slightly activate.

But from the inside, this makes sense too. When I don’t know where a door is, I look for something that looks like I can turn it, and then try to turn it. This feels perfectly natural.

Imagine a door that had a doorknob that you had to push into the door in order for the door to open.

Feels weird, right?

When objects have enough affordances, it feels natural to use them. When the affordances stop you from perceiving other possibilities, it’s called functional fixedness. Functional fixedness is pretty much what it sounds like — when you are fixed in your perception of what an object can be used for, and as a result, cannot perceive the possibility of using an object for something other than it’s “intended” purpose, and thus do not act on it.

Computation is Expensive

One of the reasons that functional fixedness makes sense is just that thinking about things is calorically expensive, compared to imitating other people. I can see that if other people push on the weird bar things on some doors they apparently open, without needing to look at the mechanism for why it might do so myself. This means that I would be optimized for being able to get through my daily life with as little thinking as possible. Caching answers for what different objects do makes things much easier than actually needing to think through it.

Empiricism is also expensive, and somewhat dangerous.

Imagine that you’re in a group of people that doesn’t know what foods are okay to eat, and that you don’t even necessarily know that poison is caused by particular molecules, rather than essences or malign spirits or somesuch. You come across a plant with leaves similar to a plant that you know is poisonous, and you have some idea that plants that looks similar often have similar properties.

On the other hand, it has these really plump attractive looking red fruits that look tasty.

Do you eat it?

It turns out that this describes tomatoes, and that people thought that they were poisonous for a while. It turns out that they’re actually still poisonous — you shouldn’t eat the leaves or the stem.

What can you do about it?

There are a couple of ways to deal with this fact.

One is to just occasionally stop and ask yourself if the thing that you’re doing is actually the best way you can think of to achieve the goal that you’re ostensibly trying to accomplish, and to ask yourself what it is that you’re trying to accomplish.

For instance, with homework, I’m ostensibly trying to do it in order to learn and get good grades so that I can get a good job. However, at least in software, GPA doesn’t seem to correlate with job performance, and it seems possible to get hired without a degree, let alone a good grade. I still think that homework somewhat helps me to learn the material, but if I’m less worried about the grade, I can do it on a schedule that’s more convenient for me, even if I lose some points.

This actually gets surprisingly far, if you haven’t done it before. It’s worth doing.

Another takeaway is that you can ask yourself if you think that the culture you’re living in does something a particular way because that’s the best that it knows how to do, or just because of different historical forces that don’t necessarily apply? Since naive empiricism only guards against catastrophic failures, you can safely expect that nothing you’re doing is going to kill you in the very near future, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good for you.

I think that food is a major instance of a case where that’s true. Nobody  thinks that sugar is good for you, but we eat it anyway because we’re used to having it around. (Also incentives for companies to make food that’s consistently immediately rewarding, but we’re not companies, right?) Bread is sometimes really tasty, but almost all of the bread that’s around just by default is just meh. So why bother eating it?

“If I were to actually think about what motor actions I anticipate would actually have this effect, would I be going about it this way? Or am I just copying people?”

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