You Are What You Want #2:
When Goodness Meets Goodhart
Welcome to the second post in my series on sin and desire. I’d planned for this entry to start my discussion of gluttony, but I hit a snag. It’s the good kind of snag (the kind that expands my understanding) but it left me unprepared to tackle gluttony this week. Instead, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned.
I’ve been planning this series in my head for several months now. At the outset my goal was to create rules that would help me avoid specific sins and become a better person. I understand that not everyone likes rules, but I’ve always been the type that prefers having my boundaries defined. Thus, my plan was to research the seven deadly sins, break down what they mean in today’s world, get feedback from my readers, and eventually create a list with entries such as: “More than X calories per week is too much.”
Clearly that plan wasn’t perfect, but I preferred imperfect guidance to silence. So, undeterred, I plowed ahead.
Then I learned about Goodhart’s Law.
Charles Goodhart is an economist. That’s almost all I know about him since the Receptacle of Important Knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia) has only the barest of information. What I do know is that in 1975 he wrote a paper critiquing Britain’s monetary policy which included the line: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” This piece of brilliance is Goodhart’s Law.
If that quote leaves you feeling more confused than inspired, then welcome to the club. I get the feeling that Mr. Goodhart doesn’t write the most readable papers. Fortunately, his axiom was later reduced to the far more pithy “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
So what does that actually mean? This is probably easiest to explain by example, and one of the most cited cases is nail factories in the Soviet Union. These factories were graded by specific metrics. At first, that metric was the total number of nails they produced. The more nails made, the more successful they were. Realizing this, the factories created massive amounts of the smallest possible nails. These nails weren’t useful, but there were lots of them. Success! Those in charge didn’t appreciate this bit of ingenuity, so they changed the goal. Success was now based on weight of nails produced. The factories thus produced a few gigantic—and very heavy—nails. Success again!
In short, Goodhart’s law is an economist’s way of saying that you can meet the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit.
When I first stumbled upon Goodhart’s law several months ago, I was researching how specifying targets can alter perceptions in the workplace. I completely missed any further application. However, as I kept thinking about this series of posts, I eventually realized that Goodhart’s insight has application in my spiritual life. Specifically, I believe it has affected our definition of a Christian.
How do you know if someone is a Christian? Belief in Jesus, obviously, but are there any overt markers that can we can identify? Are there any traits they have in common? Different spiritual gifts mean different areas of service, so it’s hard to say “Christians preach” or “Christians encourage”. Many do, but I imagine that at some point in the past people looked at the Christians they knew and noticed that they attended church, read their Bibles, and prayed. These were behaviors common to the majority of Christians.
So far, this makes sense; these ARE behaviors I would expect from a Christian. Unfortunately, this is where Goodhart’s Law steps in and reverses the equation. That which was a metric instead becomes the goal. At the start of this, being Christian meant you read the Bible, attended church, and prayed. Now, that was reversed: reading the Bible, attending church, and praying meant you were Christian.
It seems like a subtle difference, but the way it influences people is incredible. What were once external indicators of a desirable state of mind instead become desirable themselves. As people strive to emulate these behaviors, they miss that those behaviors are only indicators of achieving the goal…not the goal itself.
Once I realized this, I recognized the pitfall in my plan. By creating rules (even good and helpful rules), I was opening myself up to Goodhart’s law. If I set a goal of eating a set number of calories, it would be possible to meet the goal…and still miss the point.
I was okay with imperfect rules as long as they helped me obtain my goal of avoiding sin. Now, though, I realize I need more than that.
At this point, I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to be able to create any meaningful boundaries. It’s disappointing, but not a failure. I started this wanting a better understanding of sin, and I still do. Nothing has changed there, and I’m still going to explore what I can.
When it’s all said and done, I think that’s what matters. Even I live to be a thousand, I’m sure I won’t get it all right. If that’s true, there must be more to success than correctness. Maybe—just maybe—it’s the genuine quest for improvement that is important. If so, then I’m doing all right.
As long as I don’t let it become my target or anything.