Talkative Sell, Silent Buy

Me six years ago:

Every transaction has both a buyer and a seller. Yet we hear much more about salesmen, and how to sell, than we do about buyermen and how to buy. … Why? [Since] buyers are usually more uncertain about their value than sellers are about their cost, … whether a sale happens is more clearly a signal of seller ability than of buyer ability. … We like to see and affiliate with people who have impressive abilities associated with sales. (more)

Katja and I did another podcast recently, this time on advertising, and we talked a bit about how people seem to pay more attention to selling than to buying. Katja noted that we seem to give more attention to the signals we send, vs. interpreting the signals of others. For example, we think more about what we will wear than about the judgements we form based on what other people wear. We think a lot more what our charity says about us than about what we think about others based on their charity.

Someone at the talk last Thursday argued that they can’t be donating to look good, since they don’t tell anyone. And that reminded me of how terrified people are to speak in public. And that brought a unifying explanation to mind: we more often need to verbally justify the signals we send than how we interpret the signals of others. Let me explain.

For our distant forager ancestors, their most important public speaking probably happened in situations where they were being accused, and needed to defend themselves. Since the generic accusation behind any specific accusation was that one wasn’t doing enough overall for the band, and maybe should be exiled or killed, our ancestors should have been eager to collect examples of the help they have given, especially unheralded help. So we may have inherited a habit of doing helpful things, and not calling attention to them, but remembering them so we could mention them later if called on to defend ourselves.

More generally, our ancestors probably acquired the habit of consciously thinking about actions that others were likely to challenge or criticize. They’d continually come up with explanations of what they did and why, and be ready to tell those stories, even if they didn’t actually have to explain or justify most of them. And because they were rarely asked to justify or explain the judgements they made about others, they didn’t get into as much of a habit of explaining those.

This theory predicts that we in fact give just as much mental attention to buying as to selling, and just as much to interpreting signals as to sending signals, because these are in fact on average equally as important to us. But we give a lot more conscious attention to the side that needs to be explained, because that is what consciousness is about – consciousness helps much less to make decisions than to explain and justify them.

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  • Radford Neal

    You do sometimes hear people bragging about how great a deal they got on something, perhaps as a signal of buying ability. But this is limited by the signal it also sends about wealth. A billionaire might brag about the great deal they got on a yacht, but not on shoes (even expensive ones). Bragging about getting a good deal of frozen pizza certainly sends a signal that you’re poor, which many would not wish to do.

    • IMASBA

      The seller is seen as more dominant, the one who gives, the buyer is seen as the needy one. Maybe this stems from ancient times when people didn’t “trade” with their peers, they just helped each other out. Also there’s the imbalance where the buyer can be duped (the thing he’s buying might be useless or overpriced and the buyer has less information on this than the seller), while the buyer gets money which is always useful because you use it to buy nearly everything.

  • Stephen Diamond

    And that reminded me of how terrified people are to speak in public. And that brought a unifying explanation to mind: we more often need to verbally justify the signals we send than how we interpret the signals of others.

    Excellent inference.

  • VV

    Trying to shoehorn every social phenomenon in a signalling explanation is an instance of the hasty generalization fallacy and confirmation bias.

    Specifically in this case, sellers generally try to exert more persuasion than buyers because of an intrinsic asymmetry in the type of assets that are exchanged in typical transactions:

    Money is a standardized commodity, thus the seller can independently judge the utility he would gain by the transaction. The buyer doesn’t have to convince the seller that the money they are offering is good. The buyer, on the other hand, has generally more uncertainty about the utility of the good they are buying, thus the seller tries to persuade them.

    • VV

      To expand:

      There are exceptions where the seller, while confident about the utility of money, has more uncertainty about the exchange value of what they are selling than the buyer:

      For instance, consider the founder of a startup that is contacted by an experienced investor offering to buy their company for $ 1M. Is that a good deal or is the investor trying to dupe the founder? The founder has probably more uncertainty about the value of the company than the investor.

      In scenarios like this, the buyer is typically the more active party.

    • IMASBA

      I like how we came up with exactly the same argument independently from each other.

  • arch1

    Two more reasons we tend to talk more about sellers’ skill than buyers:
    1) Whether a buying decision was good depends in part on the ultimate value of the thing bought to the buyer, and this is often very difficult for 3rd parties to assess.
    2) Sellers tend to be full-time specialists, buyers part-time generalists.

  • gjm

    If, when a typical accusation is made, the accused says about as much in defence as the accusers say in accusation — which seems fairly plausible to me — then the average amount of ancestral public speaking in self-defence would be about the same as the average amount of ancestral public speaking in other-accusation.

  • SK

    Great observation about how much we think about our actions that could be criticized compared to what we think about other people’s similar actions.

    The forager link for the explanation seems far fetched.

    This may be because most people are on the receiving side of other peoples judgement (one king/lord vs many subjects). So historically on average people are more critical of themselves because someone can judge them and cause them harm/punishment based off their actions. However only a relative few were in a position to actually judge others and punish/reward them.

  • Siddharth

    The connection between the words ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscionable’ seems a whole lot more causal now.

  • Philo

    Although the rise of consciousness in human beings may, as
    Hanson suggests, be due to its explanatory/justificatory function in society, it also, if only secondarily, helps us to make better decisions. The work we do preparing in advance explanations and justifications of our actions must lead to *better choices* about which actions to perform, for if the most plausible explanation of a potential action would be discreditable, and the strongest justification would still be very weak, we find for a better alternative. Though our underlying concern may be with the judgment of the group—of society—this will pretty nearly be the same as the objectively correct judgment. So our concern with justifying our actions *to others* will be practically the same as that with justifying our actions *tout court*, and objectively justifiable actions will be better actions.

    In short, I would not accept Hanson’s dictum that “consciousness
    helps much less to make decisions than to explain and justify them”: I think consciousness is a *big* help in making decisions.

  • DanielHaggard

    I haven’t listened the mentioned podcast – but what is the data for the view ” that we seem to give more attention to the signals we send, vs. interpreting the signals of others”? I’d be interested in any empirical research if you know of it.

    If it is just intuition guiding you guys here – then I tend to think that my own intuitions aren’t clear on it. The claim doesn’t seem obviously true. After all – I’ve met plenty of people who will judge a person negatively with a particular trait even when they themselves possess that same trait. This to me suggests that in some contexts people certainly care more about the interpretation of others’ signals over our own.

    Yet – I do sense what you’re getting at. I obsess way more about myself appearing unkempt in public than I care about others being unkempt.

  • Stephen Diamond

    But we give a lot more conscious attention to the side that needs to be explained, because that is what consciousness is about – consciousness helps much less to make decisions than to explain and justify them.

    The conclusion is unexceptional today among evolutionary psychologists, but Robin should consider exactly how this fits his homo hypocritus model, according to which far-mode is dedicated to managing social relationships. Consciousness is mostly associated with the (analytic, sequential) near-mode, not the (intuitive, global) far-mode.

  • Stephen Diamond

    But we give a lot more conscious attention to the side that needs to be explained, because that is what consciousness is about – consciousness helps much less to make decisions than to explain and justify them.

    My latest posting Why do we confuse belief and opinion?: A construal-level-theory analysis links (linguistic) consciousness, “opinion,” and near-mode. ( http://tinyurl.com/cyhnz62 ) “Opinion” would is more related to social hypocrisy than the far-mode construct “belief.”