What’s a fire alarm for?

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

What is the function of a fire alarm?

One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.

In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm.

(I’ve read a number of replications and variations on this research, and the effect size is blatant. I would not expect this to be one of the results that dies to the replication crisis, and I haven’t yet heard about the replication crisis touching it. But we have to put a maybe-not marker on everything now.)

A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.

The fire alarm doesn’t tell us with certainty that a fire is there. In fact, I can’t recall one time in my life when, exiting a building on a fire alarm, there was an actual fire. Really, a fire alarm is weaker evidence of fire than smoke coming from under a door.

But the fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.

That’s Eliezer Yudkowsky leading up to his real point, that there’s no fire alarm for Artificial General Intelligence.


  1. Grasspunk says:

    I have a hypothesis that I guess applies to fire alarms. I think that responding in the face of apathy by others is a trainable skill. I (attempt to) teach my kids to do what they think is right even if everyone else is doing something else. One example was school shooter drills where the teachers want the kids to cower and I want my kids to get out of Dodge.

    There’s a corollary that these public control systems do the opposite – they let people wait for public signals rather than think for themselves. i.e. there can’t be a fire because the fire alarm has not gone off.

    To make it fit with Yudkowsky’s example, if you have a population that lives in highly flammable houses and have no experience of fire alarms do they have a response rate greater than 10%? Maybe USA 100y ago. Maybe New Guinea highlands today. I’d guess yes, they’d be more likely to do something when smoke showed no matter what those other clowns were doing.

  2. Kirk says:

    Yeah… I’ve never participated in one of those tests, but I can’t see myself being the guy who just sits there and waits for a public consensus to arise out of nowhere about what to do about the rising smoke… My ass is getting out of there as soon as I notice it.

    You read these things, and the question that comes first to mind is… Where the hell do they find these people? Seriously… If I were running that test, and people just ignored the smoke, waiting for a socially-acceptable reason to notice it…? After a point, I think I’d lock the doors, and leave them to asphyxiate, as a means of improving the race. Just… WTF? That can’t be real… Can it? “Socially safe”?

    On the other hand, this is probably one of those deals where they ran the tests with college students, and just assumed that everyone else would react in a similar anti-survival fashion. Testing with a broad swathe of humanity, including reasonably intelligent tradesmen who are smart enough to recognize a hazard…? You’d likely get very different results than with a herd of half-wit undergraduates.

    Some of the crap like this I see coming out of academia just makes me question the entire process by which these people are selected, educated, and promoted as “experts”. You know what we call people who ignore smoke in a room, where I come from? Dead.

  3. Felix says:

    The interpretation of these kids not acting as being because they don’t want to “appear panicky” is certainly strange.

    For instance, wouldn’t not acting be an indication they were figuring others may have been more familiar with the situation than themselves and therefore the actions of others was useful information?

    Then, too, my extremely limited experience with psych experiments is that they are a game and one can expect them to include meta-players. So, wait for the meta-players (the guys who are in on the joke, that is) to do their thing? Otherwise, you get less entertainment from your Psych 101 course.

  4. Alrenous says:

    This is not a place where burning buildings is a problem. I’ve never seen a building burn unintentionally, nor has anyone I’ve known more deeply than as an acquaintance. Even still, everyone immediately starts asking, “Do you smell smoke?” at the tiniest hint of smoulder.

    Perhaps this is the kind of thing which can’t be tested in a lab because the reaction is in part a function of the lab setting. “I’m in a lab, the professor is in charge of my safety now,” that sort of thing.

  5. Grasspunk says:

    I’m also wondering what the smoke smelled like. If it is just smoke from a machine smoke then all the kids think they’re in a nightclub.

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