Spirals, Slippery Slopes, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

spiral.jpgOpen Source Radio has done a two-part series on “The Banality of Evil,” with Situationist blogger Philip Zimbardo applying the lessons of his famous Stanford Prison Experiment to Abu Ghraib and beyond. Zimbardo has observed prisons, and recorded “vicious” and “virtuous” cycles in some. In prisons where the guards treated the inmates with decency and respect, that tended to be reciprocated. Where such minimal regard was dispensed with, the prison tended to degenerate into a cycle of violence.

This “virtuous/vicious cycle” dynamic shows up in a surprisingly wide array of contexts. For example, to help explain the decline of marriages in the US and UK over the past 50 years, Avner Offer notes:

Marriage is the public affirmation of commitment. As more marriages terminated, it became less reasonable to expect them to last. If marriage is terminable, then commitment is not final, and can be assumed with less deliberation. That in itself is likely to reduce the quality of commitment.

We see it health insurance, too: if a plan tries to offer more coverage for higher premiums, it may get sicker enrollees, whose costs may raise premiums, driving healthier members out of the plan. And in Uninsured in America, the authors apply this death spiral metaphor to individuals: many get too sick to work, then lose their insurance, and then find themselves even sicker and less employable.

I hope at some point to do some work on the relationship between the following “narratives” in social or legal reasoning:

–Vicious/Virtuous Cycles

–Death Spirals

Slippery Slopes

–Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A few more thoughts after the jump. . . .


Both Eugene Volokh and Fred Schauer (99 Harv. L. Rev. 361) have addressed the slippery slope argument in the abstract. Volokh offers the following defense of them:

[T]he slippery slope [is a] metaphor[]. . . . The trick is to look beyond the metaphor to the actual mechanism by which the “slippage” . . . happens. . . . .By identifying this concrete mechanism (for instance, people’s often-rational desire not to devote their time to considering seemingly small policy changes) we can better evaluate the actual likelihood of slippage—the probability that by supporting an appealing decision now, we will make a dangerous one later. . . . What is valuable is the ability to identify ways in which slippage might happen and to tell listeners a plausible story about how this first step might lead to specific other ones.

So are vicious cycles, death spirals, and self-fulfilling prophecies all specifications of the mechanism of a slippery slope? “Plausible stories about how [a given] first step might lead to specific other ones”? Or are they distinct phenomena deserving of treatment in their own right?

Let’s think about another “vicious cycle” argument, again from Offer:

In American society, where politics are dominated by the financial contributions of interest groups, largely from business, where the media are dominated by corporations, where more is spent on advertising, relatively and absolutely, than anywhere else in the world, and where citizens are exposed to relentless commodity propaganda, personal wealth and economic growth are securely positioned as the main private and social objectives. In a society so committed to positional competition, public opinion and public discourse are securely in the hands of the successful, in the media, in business, in politics, in the universities, in the voting system. Hence the ‘culture of contentment’, of a majority at any time credibly aspiring to or achieving middle-class lives, in which the virtues of positional competition and success are celebrated relentlessly.

Here Offer glosses the classic “rich get richer/poor get poorer” trope. But the argument threatens to turn tautological. It’s hard to distinguish between “the successful” and “those in control,” such that one could reasonably complain that the former are disproportionately represented among the latter. By gesturing to positional competition, Offer does focus on the ways in which advantage in one sphere can be leveraged into advantage in others. That, in turn, leads me to some conclusions on the ways in which cycles, spirals, slopes, and S-F prophecies can evolve from explanatory theories that describe society into normative theories that critique it (bridging Hume’s famous is-ought gap).

Let’s call the four ideas above “Predictions of Unintended Consequences and Their Intensification” (PUCIs). The problem with a death spiral or a vicious cycle is that the person starting it has catalyzed a chain of events they had no idea they were initiating. (In John Scalzi’s words: “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.”). So a PUCI is really about making clear all the potential consequences of a given action, and illuminating the likelihood of dangerous chains of events.

Of course, put so abstractly, PUCI’s may start to sound like the precautionary principle, so ably critiqued by Cass Sunstein. But a recent response to Sunstein by Gregory Mandel and James Thuo Gathii shows that Sunstein’s dismissal of the precautionary principle may be premature. More on that later….

But to return to a constant topic of discussion of the blawgosphere: how about those USN&WR rankings? Many commentators have discussed an “echo chamber” effect, a version of the S-F prophecy, whereby the all-important “reputation scores” are themselves driven by the very rankings they are supposed to help determine. My question is: has any school “spiraled” up or down the rankings? What was the original impetus? And if that original impetus was very small, might that be an example of the argument I’m making above: that PUCI’s focus us on unfair distributive consequences of decisions whose consequence is missed at the time they are made?

One last bleg: I’d love to hear commenters’ favorite examples of the PUCI’s above.

Frank Pasquale

Frank is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.

Frank accepts comments via email, at pasqresearch@gmail.com. All comments emailed to pasqresearch@gmail.com may be posted here (in whole or in part), with or without attribution, either as "Dissents of the Day" or as parts of follow-up post(s). Please indicate in your comment whether or not you would like attribution, or would prefer your comment (if it is selected for posting) to be anonymous.

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5 Responses

  1. Miriam Cherry says:

    There are many cycles like this in our jurisprudence (take “reasonable expectation of privacy,” for example – the opinions drive what is reasonable, and what is reasonable drives the opinions).

    Although I’m still trying to get my head around the concept of PUCI, for now I’ll say my favorite is a butterfly flapping its wings.

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks for reminding me of the whole James Gleick “butterfly in Bali” chaos theory thing, Miriam! That is a nice connection to this whole thing.

    Perhaps I’m trying to tie together too many ideas here…but it would be of some interest to do a “typology of futurology,” since so many policy arguments seem to depend on predictions of what will happen given some change in the law.

  3. Dan Markel says:

    Frank, in thinking about a typology of futurology you might want to think about Hirschman’s rhetoric of reaction thesis that suggests most responses to innovation fall into the perversity, futility, jeopardy trichotomy.

  4. Frank says:

    Thanks Dan–Hirschman is such a great theorist of social science, and that work definitely deserves my attention. You also bring to mind the exit/voice/loyalty thesis….and the idea that exit can become self-reinforcing as people begin to view others’ exit as an indication of the futility of “voice.”

  5. Dean C. Rowan says:

    Triggered responses, in no particular order:

    • See Wesley Salmon’s Causality and Explanation for a collection of very provocative articles regarding causation (responding to Hume, addressing issues such as proximity, etc.) in the context of scientific study.
    • Volokh’s remark, “The trick is to look beyond the metaphor to the actual mechanism by which the ‘slippage’…happens…. By identifying this concrete mechanism…we can better evaluate the actual likelihood of slippage…,” identifies a neat “trick” that can’t be accomplished. Looking behind a metaphor to its concrete mechanism…reveals another metaphor. See, e.g., I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, and Jacques Derrida, White Mythology.
    • Earlier today, before reading this post and for the first time, I heard of Hirschman’s book, and I discovered that virtually every copy is checked out from local libraries! Although not a PUCI, it is a strange phenomenon, this sudden ubiquity of a formerly obscure reference.
    • Another example of a PUCI, although a non-legal one, would be the matter of reliability of information gleaned from the ‘net. We often view the ‘net purely in terms of its effect on our ability to absorb increasing amounts of information, i.e., as a unidirectionally oriented expanding supply heaped on users, who respond by wasting time, or refusing to spend more time, or organizing their time to optimize their reception of the glut. But the echo chamber or feedback mechanism effect seems to be working here, too. Criteria of reliability shift (some would say decline) as one way to accommodate surplus information, more of which is proferred according to those adjusted criteria.