Political Signaling Theories

My conversation with Andrew Gelman inspires me to elaborate my position on politics:

Policy wonks talk about political ideologies as sets of value weights to use in policy tradeoffs … I’m suggesting instead that “Politics Isn’t About Policy.”  In large polities, the main function of our politics in our lives is how it influences the way others see us; its influence on us via policy is far weaker.   But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy.  So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

Modern political science does a pretty good job understanding the behaviors of politicians and bureaucrats, given how the public behaves; we fail most in understanding how ordinary folks relate to political processes.  And our best hope for doing better there is, I think, the idea that we are executing strategies that evolved long ago among our distant ancestors.

Our ancestors argued beliefs and negotiated actions in groups ranging from size two to a hundred.  No doubt they evolved to adapt their behavior to the size of the group, at least within this range.  And for the largest groups, the main payoffs from their arguing and negotiating behavior was not via influencing the resulting group beliefs and actions, but from how their words and deeds influenced how others thought of them.  This is all the more true for modern group sizes, and I suspect our strategies are adaptive enough to emphasize impression management even more for larger groups.

So to develop a better theory of politics, we must answer this key question: what were the most important ways that our ancestors influenced how others thought of them via their words and deeds regarding large group beliefs and actions?  It is easy to list some possibilities, but much harder to judge their relative importance:

  1. Staying within the the range of reasonable opinion shows a willingness and ability to conform to social norms.
  2. Showing that you are aware of the main issues that others are discussing now shows you are socially well-connected.
  3. Showing that you know many related details of current issues shows you have the resources to devote to this.
  4. Offering clever or novel observations on political issues shows one is smart.
  5. Recommending group beliefs or actions that fit with how a given personality type thinks shows that you are of that type.
  6. Expressing opinions or taking actions in a style typical of some group shows you are of that group.
  7. Recommending acts and beliefs that would raise the respect or resources of certain groups suggests affiliation with those groups and their other supporters.
  8. Supporting the positions expressed by particular people shows status deference to those people.
  9. Expressing novel positions before others can be a bid for dominance, realized if others then support those positions.
  10. Disinterest in politics shows an indifference to and willingness to defer to whomever wins.
  11. Praising particular politicians seems an attempt to affiliate with them.
  12. The principles you say we should follow suggest the principles you personally follow.
  13. Interest in the politics at some scale (e.g., city, nation) shows attachment to your group at that scale.
  14. Expressing political opinions to an audience shows you expect they respect you enough to listen.

(I’ll add more here, and perhaps reorganize them all, in response to comments.)  We will answer this question the way we answer similar questions, by collecting stylized facts and then seeing which explanations most simply account for such facts.

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  • I don’t think evo-psych is going to help very much here. As is ever the case with evo-psych, it’s very difficult to determine what selective forces acted on our ancestors with the precision needed to make clear predictions. For example, you note that “Our ancestors argued beliefs and negotiated actions in groups ranging from size two to a hundred.”. Instead of taking this in the direction you do, one could just as easily argue that modern humans worry about policy because their ancestors did have a much greater impact on the group policy decisions of their much smaller groups.

    Those are the problems with the evo-psych approach. But what are the benefits? To be more precise, I don’t see what you gain by asking “what were the most important ways that our ancestors influenced how others thought of them…?” rather than “What are the most important ways that we influence how others think of us?”.

  • Jim Simons

    At what point do “signalling theories” become a substitute for thought?

    “Signalling theories” explain everything -and nothing at all.

    You are treading on Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, pseudoscience, unfalsifiable territory.

  • Expressing no interest in politics to signal a willingness to go along with whatever the leaders want.

  • When people talk about politics they mostly talk about, and are knowledgeable about, people, rather than the working of institutions that people are part of or policies that they will implement. That looks aimed at affiliation, not good policy.

    Gossiping about political figures rather than acquaintances shows you care about big, important things.

  • Jacob, asking about the past is a way of figuring out the present.

    Jim, if you think they explain anything you don’t understand them.

    James and Katja,; I’ve added your suggestions.

  • Cameron

    The mediator looking for a middle ground or a compromise signals a greater interest in group harmony than in any one political idea.

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  • An example of signalling theories being more compatible with some facts than others is Hanson’s distinction between shared and private information regarding a gift.

  • Maybe one could signal a certain unpredictable volatility that could show others they need to be cautious about threatening or seeming to threaten a person or the group he tends to represent or lead (I think this is Thomas Schelling’s idea).

  • Ones that seem big – but don’t seem to be listed so far:

    * Interest in politics shows that you care about the welfare of others;

    * Interest in politics shows that you have sufficient resources to be concerned with big, important themes (and therefore are concerned with higher things than scrubbing around for your next meal);

    The first is a bit like a generalisation of point 7.

    The second seems like a generalisation of point 3 to matters beyond “current issues” and to include other resources besides invested time.

    The concept also applies to religion and cause-support – and is often a form of sexual signalling – with a subtext something like: look, since I allocate resources to this activity, I am both wealthy and not preoccupied with fulfilling the needs of existing mates or offspring.

  • Grant

    Robin, are there any serious arguments against this (Caplan/Hansonian?) view of politics?

    I would bet politics is more about signaling loyalty to a “side” than showing intelligence. For example, it is often considered impolite to discuss politics at dinner parties, because it is known to be divisive. If politics was more about showing intelligence, we’d discuss more objective political topics without taking political sides.

    James, expressing no interest in politics is I think more often used to signal ones’ superiority to politics and politicians. Or maybe more commonly it could be honest disinterest. After all, following politics closely is costly, and many people have things they’d probably rather do (and might not want to sound like an idiot taking sides in a policy discussion they know little about).

  • Perhaps it’s too fine-grained, but what about those who punish?

    Expressing a willingness to punish those who violate the norms of the dominant shows loyalty.

    Anger at those who fail to punish demonstrates loyalty.

    Expressing outrage that a norm-violator has not been punished aligns that person with the dominant group–with the added fail safe of plausible deniability. Should that norm-violator later gain status, expressing outrage is less culpable in that case than inflicting the punishment itself.

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  • Zac Gochenour

    “Disinterest in politics shows a willingness to defer to whomever wins.”

    I disagree. Disinterest in politics shows an indifference to who wins. Nearly everyone shows a willingness to defer to whomever wins, except revolutionaries.

    Political apathy can signal you are too busy thinking about other things to be bothered by politics.

  • Hal Finney

    One thing we might look at is whether people behave differently on local vs national-scale political questions. It’s one thing to agitate for universal health care, where your efforts will have no real influence on which national policy is adopted. It’s quite different to attend a school board meeting and advocate that a teacher be fired, or vote on whether your local water district should raise rates to improve water quality. In these local cases, your opinion can be much more influential if you make an effort.

    At the same time, even local elections probably involve larger groups than hunter-gatherers. So the question would be, do people behave more practically and less ideologically for local elections than national ones? If so, that would argue against the evpsych explanation, since signaling should be equally as important for groups of a thousand as groups of 100 million. (Since neither size was encountered in the ancestral environment, evolution could not select for different behavior in the two cases).

  • Hal, local and national elections can differ in many other ways besides the number of people involved. The might, for example, have differing sorts of coalitions in conflict, requiring different signals to show loyalty.

  • Justin Stec

    With the assumption that not many people are actually knowledgeable of their signaling propensities? Or, should we assume that people signal after they realize and adopt their preferences, and are then conscious of their signaling. I think that many people are impressed with certain elements of style and power, and mostly, the way that other people are viewed by an audience, and begin to craft their own sense of identity and belonging along those lines. Perhaps, also, people signal more strongly or less strongly based on their own perception of their audience at the time, and based on what they think is most important to that audience (even if one person, and even if that one person is signaling back to the first person with the same standards).

  • Anthony

    do people behave more practically and less ideologically for local elections than national ones?

    They do, until some emotive issue comes along. My hometown has recently adopted a school curriculum designed to combat anti-gay bullying. Despite the number of interesting questions possible to ask about whether this particular curriculum is a good idea, the debate fell into rather predictable, and predictably loud, patterns. The issue has involved more citizen involvement and more discussion over the past month than has the impending Budget Crisis of Doom (we’re in California).

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  • They do, and it is very simple: think of it as pickpocketing vs a big bank heist. The task is simpler, so you have less fear of failure.

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