Mind Readings: Understanding Ordered Effects

Mind Readings: Understanding Ordered Effects

In today’s episode, you’ll explore the concept of ordered effects and its significance in understanding the ripple effects of actions and decisions. You’ll discover how generative AI tools like ChatGPT and Google Gemini can assist in analyzing potential consequences beyond the immediate first-order effects. Additionally, you’ll gain valuable insights on applying this concept to real-world scenarios like climate change and homelessness, revealing the interconnectedness of systems and the hidden complexities of seemingly simple problems.


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Christopher Penn: In today’s episode, let’s talk a little bit about ordered effects.

What is that? What does that mean? Ordered effects are a way of thinking about the impact of something over time; it’s like throwing a stone in a pond and watching the ripples spread out.

You may do something that may have an effect, but that effect has an effect, that effect has an effect, etc.
For example, suppose generative AI really takes off, and companies start employing fewer people.

What are some of the first-order effects? Fewer people employed, right? A second-order effect might be that the commercial real estate market crashes.

Why is this? Fewer employees means companies don’t need as much square footage, which means companies are going to pay less for commercial real estate, which means that the commercial real estate market kind of crashes.
This is a second-order effect of generative AI.

And it’s not something that people generally give a lot of thought to.

Very often, we focus on first-order effects, like, “Hey, we do the thing.

And here’s the reaction”—action, reaction, cause-effect.

We don’t think cause-effect, effect-effect; we typically think cause and just that single order effect.
But the more we think about ordered effects, the more we realize (a) everything is connected, and (b) there are consequences to what we do that are hidden, or not obvious, or may take time to surface.

A good example is climate change.

We’ve known climate change has been a problem for 50 years.

We are now starting to see the effects of the effects of it.

And at this point, now it’s a much more difficult problem to solve.

If we were the kinds of thinkers to think in those ordered effects—”What’s the problem? The effect of, you know, increased CO2 in the atmosphere? Well, plants become less nutritious? Well, what happens with that? Well, then nutrition, you know, you get nutritional deficiencies in people, what happens after that? Well, then people get sicker easier”—things like that.
So another example, even something as simple as a problem like homelessness, like, what causes homelessness? The number one cause of homelessness is people not having homes.

Right? And that’s usually from things like affordable housing.

If you have super affordable housing, then people can have homes, they have a place to live, and they’re not homeless anymore.

Pretty straightforward, right? Why doesn’t this happen? Well, there are ordered effects.

If you make a whole bunch of housing super cheap—say, Mega City One, like in the Judge Dredd comics, right?—yes, 80-story building holds a million people.

What happens? What are the order effects? Well, super-cheap housing means that the homeless have a place to live.


But it also means that demand in the local real estate market crashes because now there are super-cheap places to live, which means you don’t need more expensive places to live.

What happens then? Well, a bunch of real estate agents and things make less than commissions.

But a lot of things like municipal taxes are pegged to real estate values, right, to the—if your house is worth $500,000, and the tax rate is 6% of that, then the city you live in collects more in taxes from you.

So municipal taxes go down.
What else happens? You have more people living in affordable housing, which tends to attract more people, which also puts a greater strain on your school system, and your sewage systems, and your roads, etc.

And so when you take a step back and you look at the order of effects, you realize that there’s a whole system, an economic system that effectively is okay with homelessness because it protects property owners who like increasing real estate values, real estate agents and their ability to make a living, municipalities that need to collect taxes, etc., etc., etc.

There are all these ordered effects from these things that when you give thought to this, you go, “Wow, this, that’s all the reason why this problem is so hard to solve because there’s a bunch of economic incentives to not solve it, not create that super-affordable housing.”
How do you get better at this? Generative AI.

Given any action, you can ask ChatGPT, or Google Gemini, or Anthropic’s Claude, “Hey, what do you know about ordered effects?” And it will tell you through—and they’ll say, and then you say, “Here’s this thing that that’s happening right now.

What are the potential ordered effects? Give me a list of first-degree ordered effects, second-degree ordered effects, third-degree ordered effects from this thing.” And these tools are really good at this kind of reasoning, much better than you and I are.

And once they do that, you go, “Oh, I could see how that could be a problem.”
Use these tools, these generative AI tools, as not just writers of blog posts, use them to help think, to help analyze, to help understand the potential outcomes from any major decision that you make, whether it is in your life personally, whether it is an issue you are voting for, whether it is something you see in the news.

Ask these tools to help you diagnose the ordered effects of any major thing, and you might be surprised at how complex a web even a seemingly simple problem can be to solve.
That’s gonna do it for this episode.

Thanks for tuning in.

Talk to you soon.
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