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Exploit, Explore, Copy
How we learn socially
In slightly technical terms, exploit means taking a decision which is known to be optimal with respect to the observed data. It’s the safest approach, the low-risk choice, and the one that best conserves resources in the short term. Explore consists of rejecting the apparently optimal option, on the basis that there’s insufficient data to truly identify it as such, and instead trying a new option on which little or no data is available. It’s the riskier strategy because it raises the odds of a mistake. But it enables the identification of new, more profitable options which might otherwise be passed by.
Several years ago, I reviewed Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, by Kevin Laland. Instead of looking at two strategies, Laland and associates included a third: observe. That is, you can watch other people deal with a situation, and then copy them. I wrote,
Widespread copying serves to slow the rate at which new behaviors are introduced. However, it also allows behaviors to be passed along to new generations, which keeps behaviors from getting lost. Laland argues that this positive effect tends to outweigh the negative effect of slower innovation.
I also wrote,
While the advantages to an individual of copying are clear, the social benefits and costs may differ at times. There will be times when people copy behavior that seems to work in the short run but is harmful in the long run. There will be times when for each individual it appears to be risky and expensive to engage in asocial learning, but society as a whole needs more innovation in order to solve difficult problems, such as a deep recession.
Copying plays a very important role in human cultural development. I think that means that exploring has a lot of positive externalities. Some of the benefit accrues to the explorer, but much of the benefit accrues to those who exploit a successful innovation.
It is also worth considering how the process of exploration takes place. In the private sector, when some firms innovate and others don’t, you get something like a controlled experiment, with profits and losses as the measure of success of failure. Exploring via government policy at the level of the central government means that everyone is forced to go along, and results are not evaluated rigorously.
Liberalism is basically explore mode - it says, let’s allow everyone to experiment and let’s rethink everything from first principles. Conservatism says we should draw on the wisdom encoded in traditions and historical norms.
If only that were true. In fact, the contemporary left does not say “let’s allow everyone to experiment.” It demands that everyone follow its dictates. That is a big reason we have so much friction in our political life these days.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
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