Adapting to Change

Some really interesting ideas from biologist Razib Khan (@razibkhan) on political ideology at his Gene Expression blog. The basic idea is that the degree to which people think for themselves, rather than simply do what everyone else is doing and has always done, depends on how quickly the world around them is changing.

The logic is very intriguing: because thinking for yourself is demanding, you only want to do it if they payoffs are bigger than the costs. If the world around you isn’t changing much, then your best bet is to save your energy and just do what everyone else is doing. If the world around you is changing, though, there’s an advantage in adapting to that change, rather than trying to interact with a new world in old ways. This requires that you think for yourself instead of sticking to tried and tested methods. But here’s the twist – if change is happening very quickly, trying to adapt may no longer be your best bet, “because adaptation is expensive, and often a total disaster if the environment switches again.” So once the rate of change in the world becomes fast enough, instead of trying to adapt, sometimes the best strategy is to revert back to whatever worked in the past and hope for the best.

Khan’s political prediction based on this logic is:

…[t]hat liberalism will tend to flourish in societies with continuous moderate levels of change. Societies characterized by stasis on the other hand will tend toward conservatism as the optimal adaptive strategy. Finally, societies riven by revolution and flux may actually be relatively illiberal, with social mores hidebound.

The idea that moderate amounts of change in the world lead people to adapt to that change, but that large amounts of change lead people to cling to what has worked in the past seems both interesting and plausible. It’s likely to make for interesting predictions between societies, but also within them. I think that there are some important differences between the context Khan starts with – organisms responding to ecological changes – and human societies.

One difference is that when you’re talking about organisms adapting to a changing environment, you’re talking about the real environment actually changing. When you’re talking about people and societies, it’s critical to acknowledge that you’re talking about perceived change, which may or may not track with actual change. What seems like a very moderate rate of change to some people may seem very fast to others. For example, the nostalgic desire to return to the good old days (which never actually existed), is based on the feeling that things are changing too quickly.

Once you start thinking in terms of perceived change rather than actual change, it opens up several interesting possibilities. One is that people’s perceptions of the rate of change can be manipulated. I think there’s a lot of evidence of this in politics, both retrospectively (e.g., yearning for a return to the good old days) and prospectively (e.g., immigrants are going to take our jobs, gay marriage will destroy traditional marriages). I’m not aware of any research that has experimentally manipulated people’s perceptions of the rate of change in the world and examined its effect on their political preferences. If anyone has, I’d be very interested in hearing about it.