Homo Hypocritus Signals

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

“X is not about Y,” … mean[s] that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X … more. … Many are well aware of this but say we are better off pretending X is about Y.

I’ve argued that much of our behavior is poorly explained by the reasons we give, and better explained as ways to signal abilities, loyalties, etc.  But if so, why do we act so astoundingly ignorant?  Why don’t we know about, and explicitly acknowledge, these functions?  Yes, it can look bad to brag, or to be consciously strategic about loyalties, and some observers may be usefully fooled by our idealistic stories.  But are these really enough to explain our incredible ignorance?

Man the sly rule bender offers a more satisfying explanation: we evolved to overtly and consciously embrace social norms against bragging, dominance, and sub-band coalitions, while covertly and subconsciously signaling our abilities, and loyalties:

Consistent enforcement of [egalitarian forager] norms seems to drastically reduce the payoff to expensive coalition-politics-savvy brains.  If you can’t collude to grab the food or the women, and everyone is treated fairly based on their contributions, why bother to be so clever? …  [But] in a messy real world, social norms expressed in language typically have many iffy boundary cases and ambiguities. … [So] big brain gains come five ways:

Unnormed – coalition politics on acts uncovered by norms.
Skirt – keep actions near but not over edge of violating norms.
Cover – politics of observers on if to report an act to others.
Frame – lawyer-like arguing on if acts violate social norms.
Conspire – form coalitions on how to publicly interpet iffy acts.

… Foragers … sincerely believe they usually just do their job and “tell it like it is,” and then unconsciously try to act, selectively report and frame acts, and support interpretation coalitions, to their advantage. … Both complex broad incest rules and allowing sorcery complaints greatly increase the scope for gains to large rule-bending brains, and suggest that we tend to prefer to allow such scope.

It looks bad to brag and to be consciously strategic about loyalties not just because those can in general look bad, but because they violate strong forager norms.  We signal covertly and unconsciously because our ancestors were strongly punished for overt and conscious signals.

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  • tonyf

    Claiming food isn’t about nutrition (etc…) isn’t about finding the truth about our true motivations but about signaling cynicism.

    • BZ

      Very Very Well Said.

      Are signalling motives, that, at best, determine How certain ideas are communicated, mutually exclusive with respect to the obvious motives?

      Is this article just meaningless signaling, whose obvious content and merit need not be considered, but instead peeled away to uncover the secret hidden meaning?

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  • stubydoo

    I’ve scientifically investigated what people think of the idea most pervasive in this blog (i.e. that signalling is a dominant motive in essentially all of social behavior). By this I mean that I have spoken with a non-random 3 or 4 people that I know. The results of my study:

    1. everyone in America believes it to be at least somewhat true
    2. everyone in America considers themselves to be an exception.

    More specifically, they all consider themselves not to be partial exceptions, but complete exceptions, i.e. that they are completely unmotivated by status/group affiliation etc.

    My take is that given how ingrained such motivations are allegedly built into human nature, for someone to be such a complete exception to the norm, they would have to undergone substantial conflict within themselves and/or with others. Anyone innately so out of step with everyone else is going to have trouble in society unless they are completely apathetic. Either way they would probably (correctly) receive a diagnosis of mental illness.

    But no-one seems to claim having reached their angelic state through the other possible route – i.e. through a painful wrenching from comfortable patterns of thought (I suspect because they can’t bring themselves to admit having once derived comfort from such unfashionable motivations).

    I expect most readers of this blog would class themselves in the more realistic category of partial exceptions – always working to minimize biases (at least those sympathetic to Hanson’s point of view would).

    • MPS

      I always understood the argument to imply that these status-signaling motives are (largely) subconscious.

      For instance, I’m a postdoc in cosmology. I choose such a profession largely because I am interesting in learning / telling people about the universe. I am interested in these things because they make me feel good. I can try to think of reasons why they make me feel good, and people talk about feeling wonder and awe and wanting to share that feeling etc.

      But ultimately, when something make you feel good, it’s because your body has evolved to give itself a reward for that behavior. Presumably telling people about cosmology makes me feel good because it gives me attention and esteem, and my body is rewarding me for that. I don’t have to be actively seeking people’s regard (though I admit this is sometimes a motivation) — it’s enough that I’ve evolved to get satisfaction from this kind of behavior because it wins regard.

      Consider sex: sure, orgasm feels good. That’s one motivation to have sex. Many of us, however, have sex for many other reasons, including for instance the satisfaction of closeness / intimacy with our partner. But this is just another form of pleasure, which we have evolved to feel as a reward for sex. We don’t consciously think we have sex just to have babies, but that’s why we feel all the feelings we have that make us want to have sex.

  • Carey

    “we evolved to overtly and consciously embrace social norms against bragging, dominance, and sub-band coalitions, while covertly and
    subconsciously signaling our abilities, and loyalties:”

    Once again, I think you try to find the single-source answer to what I intrinsically believe is a multifaceted source problem. If we’re all just overtly and consciously embracing norms against bragging, dominance and sub-brand coalitions, and we’re instead doing things not for their net gain to our personal survival, then why on earth do we have any of the following?

    1. Political parties/Politicians
    2. Social groups/associations
    3. Leaderboards / Scoreboards
    4. braggart personalities
    5. anonymous donation

    The first four elements openly acknowledge that bragging, dominance hierarchies and coalitions are alive and well — Nor do I think there’s much hiding the ball when actions are done by groups (or individuals within the group) that further the goals of the group (at least for 1,2, and 3).

    I’ve included the braggart in the mix only to point out that, at least for men, bragging and boastfulness may even be a beneficial and encouraged trait [1].

    Finally, the last aspect, anonymous donation, flies in the face of what you’re arguing here. IF we’re all out to be charitable and generous largely just for the purpose of covert bragging and social status elevation, how do you explain your theory in the context where donees choose to remain anonymous?

    Don’t get me wrong, Robin. I think there’s some strong merit in this argument in many situations. I think this is also something that we’re not all that ignorant on (particularly, when as my old professor would say, something didn’t pass the ‘sniff test’). Like your last poster, I think there’s more of us that don’t acknowledge how much our actions may be impacted by internal desires to elevate our status and respect by the group. That said, I don’t think its reasonable to divorce any or all actions from the asserted motive (food can be for nutrition, Medicine can be for health, etc.)

    Sometimes we’re not trying to game the system, we’re just trying to survive.

    [1] “Should I Brag? Nature and Impact of Positive and Boastful Disclosures for Women and Men”, Miller, Linda available at: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119330585/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

  • stubydoo, yes we tend to think signaling is more common among others.

    Carey, I talked about what forager behavior evolved; farming and industry have changed many things.

  • Hal Finney

    This reasoning does offer an explanation for why big brains might have evolved, to help walk the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Still it seems like the basic puzzle remains: why is this hypocrisy unconscious? Why do our conscious minds remain unaware of our subconscious signaling?

    I know we have handwaving explanations that it is easier to fool others if you first fool yourself. Some (possibly Robin?) even argue that the whole purpose for consciousness, the reason it evolved, is to have a self to fool.

    But are there computational models which show that it is easier to maintain a facade with a dual-mind structure like this? If we imagine a group of interacting agents who are trying to manipulate each other, under what circumstances would it be advantageous for an agent to create a sub-self which is naive and unaware of its true motivations?

    • Hal, our minds had two key tasks:

      1) to quickly and in detail calculate what we would say and do if we intended just as we claim, to just follow our band’s norms fairly and enthusiastically, doing what is good for the band.
      2) to calculate how to keep our actions roughly consistent with that first calculation, but to adjust them moderately to better achieve selfish aims, though not so much the deviation becomes too obvious.

      Now the usual way our brain does tasks tends to produce a lot of leakage; typically, all tasks leak into each other. But that is a problem for the key purpose of making it look like we are just following task #1. So it makes sense to try to isolate task 1 a bit, so that it is less influenced by leakage from task 2, and to add some extra barriers to try to keep it unaware of the moderate adjustments to its actions from task 2. It isn’t so much that the mind has a “dual structure” as that certain connections need to be suppressed.

      • I get that – I’m not clear what ‘man the sly rule bender’ adds to this explanation. Would we be better at the five skills listed if we act more sincere about #1?

        Surprising that cynicism about others hasn’t become stronger, if it allows us to call out others for their self serving antisocial behaviour.

      • Rob, not following you. The norms require apparent sincerity.

      • Robin,
        that makes perfect sense. In the age of collective intelligence our next step is to figure out how to minimize #2 to reduce tragedy of the commons problems. You’ve written about the Bayesian Truth Serum before and my money is on a BTS debate forum’s ability to accomplish this. Have you seen this paper discussing a BTS forum?


        “BTS has not been tested in an interactive domain, where respondents receive real-time feedback on other respondents. We have developed an interactive game that implements BTS scoring, such that participants are able to converse and poll each other on speci c topics. Our goals are twofold: 1) to determine the e ect of
        group interaction and iteration on the predictive abilities of articipants, speci cally with respect to BTS scoring; 2) to establish the importance of information quality in opinion measurement rather than statistical signi cance of population sampling, particularly where respondent samples may lack representative qualities.”

    • Vladimir M.

      Hal Finney:

      Still it seems like the basic puzzle remains: why is this hypocrisy unconscious? Why do our conscious minds remain unaware of our subconscious signaling?

      Here is one possible answer that immediately springs to mind. A hypothetical situation where everyone is completely upfront and honest about everything would be extremely unstable, since there would be huge potential gains from dishonesty. On the other hand, if dishonesty is a realistic threat, then there are huge advantages to being able to sniff out any traces of it and avoid dealing with such individuals, and retaliate severely if one has already been fooled. This could plausibly trigger an evolutionary arms race where humans become increasingly better liars and lie detectors. This is consistent with real-world data: in situations where they need to detect dishonesty, humans can instinctively perform feats of reasoning that would be way over their heads in other contexts.

      However, this situation also opens the way for more complex higher order strategies. If the arms race leads to a situation of general low trust, then instead of aiming for the ever harder position of a skilled liar, you might try to signal your inability to lie convincingly and thus reap the benefits of trust. This can be achieved by purposefully crippling your lying skills, possibly by developing guilty conscience and thus displaying gross incompetence in situations where you could benefit from conscious dishonesty, as well as later remorse even if you yield to the temptation and succeed. And indeed, we expect people to be at least somewhat like this — skillful cold-blooded and non-remorseful liars typically scare and repulse us.

      But then, this opens the way for another, yet higher-level strategy: even if you gain important trust by being a truly bad liar, you might still benefit from creating exceptions where you honestly delude even yourself about the situation and thus side-step your purposeful self-limitations on dishonest behavior. In particular, when it comes to delusional beliefs that have positive signaling value and little direct practical cost for your personal life, it’s far easier to honestly delude yourself into believing them than to attempt professing them with conscious dishonesty, which would be vulnerable to other people’s lie detectors and run afoul of your own guilty conscience.

      Thus, we get what we indeed see in reality: honest people who would be tormented by guilt if they cheated you for a dollar, and who couldn’t stand looking in your eyes while telling a lie, but who routinely and instinctively practice gross hypocrisy whenever it comes to beliefs and behaviors that have high signaling value and little personal cost.

      • floodplain

        Yes, but how would this “handicap” strategy get established. If people evolve to cripple their lying ability how are people able to detect that the person with the handicap is really unable to lie, unconsciously following his/her delusions etc.. rather than playing just another conscious strategy.

  • Microbiologist

    I think Vlad M. nails it as usual. Robin’s statement that there are norms against being transparently cold and calculating in your loyalties is true, but doesn’t reach the heart of the matter. The heart of it is that if you are perceived as machiavellian in your loyalties, every person to whom you are loyal will wonder if your loyalty is a scheme. Better to appear guileless then: you are guilelessly loyal and honest toward everyone with whom you come into much contact: you are (supposedly) a ‘romantic.’ That’s the more fundamental level that underlies the ‘norm’ of not being strategic about loyalties.

    And if your machiavellian interests require that you break loyalty with someone, then by Jove, you had better think of some baloney reason why that person is beyond the pale (not just beyond your machiavellian interests), and why no one could possibly sustain loyalty to that person. Such a terrible person!

    • Vladimir M.


      The heart of it is that if you are perceived as machiavellian in your loyalties, every person to whom you are loyal will wonder if your loyalty is a scheme.

      I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the recently linked old OB post “Against Disclaimers”. Why do people rush to form sweeping hostile and judgmental conclusions about anyone who attempts to discuss an unpleasant topic in a detached manner? It seems to me like it’s due to a very similar mechanism. If you discuss arguments against a point of view in a neutral and detached manner, you signal that you have no emotional attachment to it — which is then perceived by its partisans as a threatening sign, very much as if you signaled that your group loyalty is Machiavellian and not emotional.

      This might explain why questioning respectable opinions, and even merely giving fair and serious consideration to evidence against them, often provokes such seemingly irrational hostility. People holding respectable views perceive those who don’t share them — sometimes correctly — as a malevolent and greatly dangerous force that must be fought off, and thus instinctively judge everyone based on which side he supports in this struggle. Being able to discuss evidence against the respectable point of view without an emotional reaction signals a lack of true emotional loyalty to the respectable cause.

      What gives the intellectual and ideological struggles of our age a particular tone of absurdity is the fact that nowadays the prevailing respectable beliefs include the reverence for rationality, open-mindedness, freedom of opinion, questioning authority, etc. So, we see respectable people professing these ideals with utmost honesty while — often in the same paragraph — lashing out sternly on others for failure to react to unrespectable views with the proper emotional response.

    • Micro, I said “it can look bad to brag, or to be consciously strategic about loyalties” which isn’t about norms, it is about the direct signal you describe.

  • Microbiologist

    Why is there a special sphere, familiar to everyone, where machiavellian pursuit of relationships is explicitly permitted? To wit:

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  • Lying in Bed

    One wonders if women are more subconscious in their dealings. Certainly they are said to be more emotional.

    Perhaps for women the penalty for acting out of the bounds of social cohesion is greater – and so the disconnect between their true motives and subconscious more highly evolved.

    Partial explanation for their higher “EQ”? The reason they appear so complex to men?

    • floodplain

      “Perhaps for women the penalty for acting out of the bounds of social cohesion is greater.”

      Why would the penalty be higher for women? Most women in history got a chance to get married and reproduce, while most men didn’t. If anything, men are punished more for social blunders by failure with the ladies, getting kicked out/killed by the tribe, etc.

  • I agree. A few to add:

    Being green isn’t about saving the planet.
    Obamacare isn’t about taking care of those without health insurance.
    Banning smoking isn’t about a smoke free environment.
    Banning table salt isn’t about keeping people healthy.
    Stimulus spending isn’t about economic stimulus.
    Economic research isn’t about finding the true answers.
    Public education isn’t about access to education.

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  • David

    These statements would carry more weight if they read, “is not just about”. There is more to life than is contained in your philosophy Robin.

  • lemmy caution

    You are right that there is a lot of other things going on with those Xs. The Ys are still important though.

  • For a while I thought this thread was about genetic influence on slyness, till I reread Robin’s earlier Homo Hypocritus post.

    There he says that big brains are hard to explain, but they seem to have grown most in periods or places of higher social density. So maybe big brains are explained by having an advantage in “social situations” (my pun).

    But, societies tend to discourage people from using smarts to exploit the people around them. So how could smarts still be an advantage? By cleverly getting around that discouragement, bending rules.

    In other words, slyness isn’t so much explained by specific genes, as much as slyness gives an explanation for otherwise unexpected big-brain genes.

    Slyness, rules against slyness, unconsciousness of slyness, suspicion of detachment, etc, are “just” further strategic refinements thought of by bigger brains. By which I don’t mean obvious.

    Robin isn’t (or at least wasn’t) talking about strategizing genes, but just genes for bigger brains. Slyness only comes in as a story of why big brains became necessary at a specific point. There is an older hypothesis that social scheming in general was the reason for big brains. Robin offers slyness to explain an impasse that scheming-theory runs into.

    Erm, do I have that right, Robin?

  • MPS: “Presumably telling people about cosmology makes me feel good because it gives me attention and esteem”

    I’m thinking Robin and commenters have undoubtedly addressed this in the past, but this ignores the quite extraordinary human desire for self regard.

    I’ve pondered quite a bit how that predilection might have evolved. Adaptation or spandrel?

    Have to run out the door and can’t expand, but will return in hopes of insight.

  • Mike

    The idea that signalling is something others do, but not me! is just great! We are all above average drivers, more honest than usual, and a bit above average in intelligence, I’d say.

    I think a significant fraction of certain kinds of modern psychotherapy and spiritual disciplines (Enter The Castle comes to mind) can improve one’s ability to see his own motives in communication.

    At this point in my own life, I’m sorta depressed by the realization of how much of my verbal behavior is B.S. (my shorthand for signalling rather than indicating facts). The only thing cheering me up is that it is not that I have become a signaller, but that I have finally realized it to a great extent.

    It would be suicide to stop signalling, by the way. Evolution may be a lot of things, but it isn’t generally wildly suboptimal.


  • Jedermann

    Exploration isn’t about exploring.

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