Why Do Bets Look Bad?

Most social worlds lack a norm of giving much extra respect to claims supported by offers to bet. This is a shame because such norms would reduce insincere untruthful claims, and so make for more accurate beliefs in listeners. But instead of advocating for change, in this post I wonder: why are such norms rare?

Yes there are random elements in which groups have which norms, and yes given a local norm that doesn’t respect bets it looks weird to offer bets there. But in this post I’m looking more to explain which norms appear where, and less who follows which norms.

Bets have been around for a long time, and by now most intellectuals understand them, and know that all else equal those who really believe more strongly are willing to bet more. So you might think it wouldn’t be that hard for a betting norm to get added on to all other local norms and cultural factors; all else equal respect bets as showing confidence. But if this happens it must be counter-balanced by other effects, or bets wouldn’t be so rare. What are these other effects?

While info often gets overtly shared in casual conversation, most of that info doesn’t seem very useful.  I thus conclude that casual conversation isn’t mainly about overtly sharing info. So I assume the obvious alternative: casual conversation is mostly about signaling (which is covert or indirect info sharing). But still the puzzle remains: whatever else we signal via conversation, why don’t we typically expect a betting offer to signal overall-admirable confidence in a claim?

One obvious general hypothesis to consider here is that betting signals typically conflict with or interact with other signals. But which other signals, and how? In the rest of this post I explore a few bad-looking features that bets might signal:

  • Sincerity – In many subcultures it looks bad to care a lot about most any topic of casual conversation. Such passion suggests that you just don’t get the usual social functions of such conversations. Conversationalists ideally skip from topic to topic, showing off their wits, smarts, loyalties, and social connections, but otherwise caring little about the truth on particular topics. Most academia communities seem to have related norms. Offers to bet, in contrast, suggest you care too much about the truth on a particular topic. Most listeners don’t care if your claim is true, so aren’t interested in your confidence. Of course on some topics people are expected to care a lot, so this doesn’t explain fewer bets there.
  • Conflict – Many actions we take are seen as signals of cooperation or conflict. That is, our actions are seen as indicating that certain folks are our allies, and that certain other folks are our rivals or opponents. A bet offer can be seen as an overt declaration of conflict, and thus make one look overly confrontational, especially within a group that saw itself as mainly made of allies. We often try to portray any apparent conflict in casual conversations as just misunderstandings or sharing useful info, but bets are harder to portray that way.
  • Provinciality – Bets are most common today in sports, and sport arguments and bets seem to be mostly about showing loyalty to particular teams. In sports, confrontation is more ok and expected about such loyalties. Offering to bet on a team is seen as much like offering to have a fist fight to defend your team’s honor. Because of this association with regional loyalties in sports, offers to bet outside of sports are also seen as affirmations of loyalties, and thus to conflict with norms of a universal intellectual community.
  • Imprudence – Some folks are impulsive and spend available resources on whatever suits their temporary fancy, until they just run out. Others are careful to limit their spending via various simple self-control rules on how much they may spend how often on what kinds of things. Unless one is in the habit of betting often from a standard limited betting budget, bets look like unusual impulsive spending. Bettors seem to not sufficiently keep under control their impulsive urges to show sincerity, make conflict, or signal loyalties.
  • Disloyalty – In many conversations it is only ok to quote as sources or supports people outside the conversation who are “one of us.” Since betting markets must have participants on both sides of a question, they will have participants who are not part of “us”. Thus quoting betting market odds in support of a claim inappropriately brings “them” in to “our” conversation. Inviting insiders to go bet in those markets also invites some of “us” to interact more with “them”, which also seems disloyal.
  • Dominance – In conversation we often pretend to support an egalitarian norm where the wealth and social status of speakers is irrelevant to which claims are accepted or rejected by the audience. Offers to bet conflict with that norm, by seeming to favor those with more money to bet. Somehow, who is how smart or articulate or has more free time to read are considered acceptable bases for conversation inequities. While richer folks could be expected to bet more, the conversation would have to explicitly acknowledge that they are richer, which is rude.
  • Greed – We often try to give the impression that we talk mainly to benefit our listeners. This is a sacred activity. Offering to bet money makes it explicit that we seek personal gains, which is profane. This is why folks sometimes offer to bet charity; the money goes to the winner’s favorite charity. But that looks suspiciously like bringing profane money-lenders into a sacred temple.

Last week I said bets can function much like arguments that offer reasons for a conclusion. If so, how do arguments avoid looking bad in these ways? Since the cost to offer an argument is much less than the cost to offer a bet, arguments seem less imprudent and less show sincerity. Since the benefits from winning arguments aren’t explicit, one can pretend to be altruistic in giving them. Also, you can pretend an argument is not directed at any particular listener, and so is not a bid for conflict. Since most arguments t0day are not about sports, arguments less evoke the image of a sports-regional-signal. As long as you don’t quote outsiders, arguments seem less an invitation to invoke or interact with outsiders.

If we are to find a way to make bets more popular, we’ll need to find ways to let people make bets without sending these bad-looking signals.

Added: It is suspicious that I didn’t do this analysis much earlier. This is plausibly due to the usual corrupting effect of advocacy on analysis; because I advocated betting, I analyzed it insufficiently.

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  • Joshua Fox

    Willingness to bet, particularly in areas outside well-structured gambling games or financial markets, is, in our society, strongly correlated with all the worst kinds of biases. Kahnemann and Tversky have a field day among bettors.

    Also, willingness to bet is often more a statement of affiliation than a real calculation of odds. (This is connected to your Provinciality category.)

    • What people are willing to say is more biased than what they are willing to bet. Almost all of K&T’s results are on what people are willing to say, not bet.

  • Jess Riedel

    Anecdotally, I’ve seen evidence that the monetary dominance explanation is very important. Already, we know that the strong social taboo against discussing one’s salary leads people to forgo a lot of valuable information they could use when bargaining for salary.

    • It is ok to talk about your salary in China. Even so, bets are also rare there.

    • Peter David Jones

      It’s easy to find that information on the web. It wasn’t too
      difficult pre-web…you just had to buy the right newspapers.

      However, not many people do. I think that could represent a missed opportunity, in that students might be better motivated if they understood the rewards.

      OTOH, who would go into teaching?

  • BJ Terry

    Some non-signalling explanations for why betting wouldn’t necessarily become a social norm:

    The intersection between things that people like to discuss and where there are concrete, uncontroversial outcomes to bet on could be very small. Thinking of good bets is a skill and one that isn’t taught, and, because I don’t have the skill myself, I’m not even sure whether its mastery gets you to a large number of worthwhile bets or whether that simply lies outside the realm of possibility.

    Thinking of, coordinating, and adjudicating bets is all hard work that may be not worth it for many sorts of disagreements. This acts as a non-monetary form of vigorish / house take. It could simply be that this inconvenience overrides the value of small bets beyond the point where it becomes reasonable to make any bets in the context of your overall portfolio. Also, to the extent that your bets are conditional upon preconditions or relate to longer-term outcomes, this “utility vigorish” is even higher because of additional uncertainty in planning.

    Because of disparate incomes a “tax on BS” bet for one person can easily be a signalling bet for another person, which is inherently problematic unless there is actually a market for that bet.

    Your explanation of sports betting should be read as reflecting “rhetorical” bets between individuals and not as reflective of the sports betting market as a whole or by volume. According to my lay understanding, the majority of volume of sports betting is from professional and disinterested bettors (i.e. people who don’t affiliate with the teams they are betting on), which is why the lines are considered very “sharp” nowadays. This doesn’t necessarily hold true for major events such as the Super Bowl or NBA Championship, which can, ironically, have a lot of betting volume but less sharp lines. If a large market team is playing a small market team, affiliation betting from the large market team fanbase can move the lines away from the proper level, for example.

    • The overhead of betting should discourage it some, but that seems far from sufficient to explain the rarity of betting. If offering to bet sends a good signal, then trying to work out useful wording should send a good signal, even if no useful bet is ever worked out.

      • guest

        Or it sends the signal that you’d rather quibble over the details of an impossible wager than engage in lighthearted conversation. Eagerly engaging in legalistic wrangling might be considered a positive in some social milieus, but in most it’s considered gauche.

    • Lord

      While many of these signaling explanations are important if not dominant socially, there would seem to be another set of non-signalling ones.

      I think most people are deeply uncertain about the future. They might have some beliefs about the direction, but too wide a confidence interval to lay out a bet. It may feel like wish fulfillment or hope denial. It may cause them to over commit to a position leading them astray as time passes. They may face anxiety of being wrong and regret from entering into one. They may fear even if they were right, circumstances might change invalidating them, the contingencies being too great to incorporate.

      Socially, they may not wish to convey their uncertainty and I am sure they don’t want to be shown wrong.

  • Rod Brown

    I agree with you about betting as a way to increase the accuracy of opinions, but I think you’ve missed one big reason for why bets don’t occur frequently in society: most people don’t have extra money, and they view betting as a way for people with money to “oppress” others who have less money. Hence, the majority of society wants a norm that discourages betting on very many opinions. I still like betting as a way for more professional people (who typically have more money) to validate their opinions, especially in more structured decision markets (and not for every opinion in ordinary conversation). Of course, I have no evidence for this opinion, other than the fact that most people don’t have much money. The rest is speculation. But I might be willing to bet some money on it.

    • Since such folks find “extra” time to argue, and time can be converted into money, how can they not have “extra” money to bet? Bets don’t destroy money; on average some people win and others lose.

      • Doug

        Arguing is enjoyed by a sizable proportion of people because its a way of demonstrating intelligence and knowledge. Witness many people enjoy debating positions that they don’t even believe, just for the fun of it.

        Why wouldn’t people want to demonstrate those same qualities through public bets? Consider that an argument can make both sides look good to third parties. Even a loser in an intelligent debate looks smart.

        In contrast to arguing, spectators to bets are much more focused on the end result. If someone conclusively loses a bet he looks bad, even if his arguments were well-formulated and sophisticated.

      • Just as those who argue and lose can look better than those who refuse to argue, those who bet at lose can look better than those who refuse to bet.

      • Sebastian_H

        Poor people sometimes have more time than rich people but they always have less money.

        The problem is that for things with less than absolute certainty, bets can oppress those with less money because the rich person can bet the uncertainty while the poor person can’t even risk one loss.

        (See also why rich people can afford to play the stock market while poor people can’t).

      • “Time ain’t money when all you got is time.”

  • Jonah Sinick

    • On “Sincerity” — for the most part, I don’t think that it looks bad to care about the truth on a particular topic. Rather, I think that the issue here is that because people generally don’t optimize for epistemic accuracy in conversation, they feel uncomfortable when the focus is shifted to epistemic rationality, because the ball is no longer in their court.
    • On “Conflict” and “Greed” — I agree. Betting activates the cold and calculating & zero-sum parts of the brain, and people don’t like it when people do that in conversation.
    • On “Provinciality” — I think that the point here is just that betting in contexts outside of the traditional ones looks weird. The stock market can be viewed as a betting market, and it doesn’t have any of the tribalistic associations of sports.
    • On “Imprudence” & “Dominance” — These things can be issues, e.g. in the case of Mitt Romney’s $10k bet, but the people who I know who make bets generally make very small bets, and so in practice these considerations don’t seem to explain the absence of betting.
    On “Disloyalty” — I agree.

    The “Conflict” issue can partially be resolved by people betting against people who they don’t know. Saying “I really believe this – I’m willing to make a bet against some guy on the internet” doesn’t sound as confrontational as “I’ll bet you…” If you win the bet, then your friends can congratulate you, and if you lose the bet, your friends can playfully chide you. It can be a bonding experience.

  • Mark

    I applaud your attempt at intellectual due diligence and your humility in admitting that you should have done so sooner. This is a compelling problem.

    Most ideas X competing for our attention will not bring us any value and we don’t really have time to sort through each such X and analyze it in detail. Instead, we will consider X only if it seems to be bringing folks success and status or if we are really desperate. Tyler Cowen is probably not very desperate and betting isn’t popular right now.

    Most of us aren’t desperate for truth, and, as you’ve argued before, its generally maladaptive in conversation to be desperate.

  • Samuel

    They is also the fact that in our society gambling is often associated with poverty and damaging addictions. People may feel that making it more acceptable will increase problems of this sort.

    • This seems to be more about status. Pretty much anything associated with low status people will tend to be associated with poverty and damaging addictions. Like say wrestling or monster truck rallies.

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  • Axa

    “Sincerity – In many subcultures it looks bad to care a lot about most any topic of casual conversation. Such passion suggests that you just don’t get the usual social functions of such conversations. Conversationalists ideally skip from topic to topic, showing off their wits, smarts, loyalties, and social connections, but otherwise caring little about the truth on particular topics.” You’re describing the teen-age me who didn’t understand how little talk works. I bet (hahaha) this is a good explanation, most men don’t care about the environment, they just try to take home the hot “green” lady in the party. Who cares about the truth about wind energy or organic food? As long as you get want you want, f*ck truth. Also applies to getting votes or funding for NGO operation. You need to be charming, not honest.

  • free_agent

    In our culture, people do bet a lot on sports. From what I’ve read, their betting isn’t particularly accurate, and that someone who intensively studies the subject for a year or so can beat the market.

    People also bet a lot, but it is with life decisions: Who to marry, what line of work to go into, etc. If after some years, there is a predominance of prosperous people among those who have bet in a certain direction, others follow. One example is that just before the crash, over 40% of Harvard graduates went to work on Wall Street, which is probably a response to the financial success of the previous decade or two of Harvard grads who had done the same. Similarly, if one is proposing a business deal, one is taken much more seriously if one has put down a large investment in the deal.

    One difficulty with taking betting as a signal is that if it was common or accepted, would the willingness of someone to bet be a useful signal that what they believed was correct? It seems likely that their willingness to bet would be a signal that they *believed*, but we’re well aware that intensity of belief and objective correctness aren’t correlated very well.

    This topic reminds me of Michael O’Brien’s observation “Computer-literate people have highly complex mental models of how computers and operating systems do what they do, and geekly conversation is made up mostly of an exchange and comparison of these models.” Precious little of conversation has the purpose of discerning the objective truth about the external world, and geeks are not valued because of their inclination to articulate complex, accurate models during ordinary conversation.


    “One obvious general hypothesis to consider here is that betting signals typically conflict with or interact with other signals.”

    Yup, that’s right Robin, most conversation is about social signalling, not fact finding.

    So why don’t we see much betting in serious discussions? Well, it’s hard to pin down an exact bet that can also be expected to be resolved decisively within a short enough window of time (that window depends on the age of the betters, how long they expect to stay in contact, etc…)

    Such bets do occur, but they are rare because a lot of factors have to be just right, an example would be the bet between Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs over whether the existence of the Higgs particle would be shown, last year Hawking lost that bet, after 48 years, and had to pay Higgs $100.

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  • Seth Roberts

    Veblen noted a general feeling in the upper classes that anything connected with commerce, such as money, was “rude”. Bets involve money, therefore are rude.

    • Laurence Gordon

      Yeah, golf is such a rude game.

    • stevesailer

      No, gambling is the mark of the upper class, while the middle class is prudent.

  • The norm you call Sincerity is the most important reason that betting is discouraged in serious intellectual discussion. I think you could more perspicuously call it Insincerity, which also brings out the whiff of paradox. The norm holds that while you should care lots about being right, you shouldn’t be very confident you’re right. (Thus you should be insincere: not believing too strongly what you say). Excessive confidence in being right leads to fanaticism and failure to be objective. Great confidence in being right is called opinionation. In everyday life, it’s called arrogance.

    You apparently think that bullshit, insincere signaling, is the big problem in our discourses. I think academic life imposes draconian penalties on being seriously and demonstratedly wrong, and the big problem is fear of error. It’s kind of like we’re looking at different worlds, which I find hard to make sense of. I think it would be easy to point to the mass of safe but insignificant research being done, but where’s the bullshit? We’ve had a few examples. Krugman refused a bet: do you really think it’s because he’s bullshitting? Another example I’ve seen is that the Nobel Laureate economist Samuelson predicted economic convergence between Russia and America. What was he supposedly signaling: his being on the Communists’ side?

    It seems like everyone who’s ever been proven right is demanding the right to make money off it at the expense of those who are wrong. I doubt you all even have the same instances in mind. Unless the error is due to hypocrisy, the betting solution simply doesn’t fit.

    • Ari

      Markets don’t work if you are not hypocritical?

      I don’t think the problem is insincerity. I do think that Krugman (or some right-wing pundit) tend to develop biases without being aware of them themselves. When I look back at many of my posts I can see how I played the signaling games without myself knowing. I also do think that there is some area of brain that is aware of this (let’s call it the near-mode). A person can be a very rational scientist but have irrational political views.

      I think the problem is that without strong feedback people tend to develop biases. Markets to some extent weed out these people. I’m not sure if random betting among intellectual discourse would be enough for people to actually change their (pet) beliefs. I’m not objected to that either. It could be a great thing.

      I think once you develop this meta-level understanding of the signaling games humans play between different factions, it becomes somewhat easier to spot your own signalling-basd biases. That is still not an escape from the game though.

      I also think the claim that people “demand” to make money of people’s false beliefs is silly.

      • Robin thinks the problem is insincerity. “This is a shame because such norms would reduce insincere untruthful claims, and so make for more accurate beliefs in listeners.” Certainly its effectiveness in dealing with insincerity is much greater than for problems like the one’s you stress.

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  • Does Robin sincerely believe that intellectuals should bet more? An irony: There’s reason to seriously doubt Robin’s sincerity because a signaling explanation can account for why he says he favors more bets. Taking this position signals that he’s usually right, signals that he has justified confidence in his beliefs in general, since if he were usually wrong, the proposal would be to his disadvantage. (This seems a good explanation for why the proposal is so wildly popular: it’s an excellent signaling move to favor betting on beliefs. Notice that it was wildly popular even before Robin amended his analysis to make it adequate.)

    Now, if Robin and others really think the (rationally based) credibility of the messenger is as important as the message, they should now think lots less of Robin’s proposal. I think this signaling “argument” makes him substantially less credible in his sincerity. So how important is sincerity, really?

  • Li’l Em-Kel

    I got through three or four paragraphs of this impenetrable BS and concluded that Robin Hanson should return to the seventh grade to learn the rudiments of clear writing. Sheesh!

    • Robin’s style isn’t usually this bad; here, even the first sentence is horrible. (I still voted the post up because of content.) The problem is it’s overqualified. Robin decided he had underanalyzed the signaling involved in betting (although not recognizing that he had underanalyzed the signaling of ideologies), and he shifted to near-mode, which is bad for writing — http://tinyurl.com/cdzotb4 .

      What’s harder to explain is why, being in near-mode, he didn’t do better editing. There are blatant typos, reminding me of Robert Wiblin’s writing. But Robin’s writing improves later in the essay: he seems to have moved to far-mode. It’s all in the timing. ( http://tinyurl.com/9sw54v8 .)

      While on the subject of writing—let me suggest that Robin should title a post “Drexler and me again” not “Drexler and I again.” The latter is unidiomatic and pretentious. It’s a bad signal. (On the signaling significance of pretentiousness, see http://tinyurl.com/agft7ga .)

  • afl

    You missed rhetoric.
    A lot of conversations are about MAKING THE ARGUMENT, rather than simply being on the right side of the argument. In such a conversation, proposing a bet may settle the argument but not via a method that is ENTERTAINING to the audience. Most conversations are about entertainment, not actual fact-finding. So, the audience rightfully shuns those that ruin the entertainment potential of an argument by suggesting to settle it with something as cold and clean as a bet, which involves no show on the parts of the opponents.

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  • free_agent

    This reminds me of the problem with stock-market newsletters: The people who have the information to place correct bets aren’t telling everybody that they do so, they *place bets* and turn a profit on it.

    The problem you are addressing is limited to the “marketplace of ideas”, the public discussion of ideas, which includes the blogosphere and much of academia. But in that arena, the mores are tuned to ensure the collective prosperity of the marketplace of ideas. If you really did master psychohistory and could predict the liberal/conservative swings of future US elections, it would be bad form to offer to prove your knowledge by offering bets, because that would offer no grist for everyone else’s mills. Instead, you are required to reveal your model and your analysis predicting that it works well. Then the other intellectuals have something new to work on. In addition, it increases the body of publicly-known knowledge.

  • WT

    This seems like a very complex explanation when a simple one would suffice. If bets would make people’s views more accurate, and some set of powerful institutions benefits from people’s views being inaccurate, then bets will be discouraged. All you need to explain the observed situation is self-interest.

  • jonas

    The reason is the same as why there’s so much B.S. in business meetings.


    People disagree much more than they realize. It’s all papered over with social niceties. If betting was too easy or socially acceptable, these disagreements would bubble to the surface. And god forbid if these disagreements had to be adjudicated on their merits. Social order will tumble!

    Just like only good strong friends can avoid bs-ing each other, only good strong friends can make bets on each other’s correctness.

  • Zachary Miller

    “Why don’t we typically expect a betting offer to signal overall-admirable confidence in a claim?”

    For the same reason we don’t expect all roulette players in Vegas to be award-winning statisticians. Willingness-to-bet doesn’t equate to confidence, nor deep pockets to deep theoretical knowledge. There are many times when I am willing-to-bet, but am also very uncertain as to the bet’s outcome (whether the next card will be a 6 or a King, for example.) And there are many outcomes I’m fairly confident about, but would not like to bet on (Clinton launching a Presidential bid, for example.) Betting does something very close to, but fundamentally different from what intellectuals are supposed to be doing up in our ivory towers.

    While bets are predictions of future outcomes, intellectuals seek to model future outcomes. The difference is subtle, but important. I can understand my odds on every throw of the craps dice and still lose. And I can win 10 card games in a row; it doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly the smartest man in the room.

    If we increase the games played to infinity, you would think that luck would even out, and that only those who had superior models would prosper, right? That’d be the hope, at least. In reality, my ability to predict future outcomes has nothing to do with the soundness of my model. I could for example, tell you that the probability a coin will land heads up = (the number of U.S. states /100). And I’d be right, (for now) but I’d have no idea why that number is right, or why my model started going bad after we admitted Puerto Rico, or why it started working again when South Carolina secedes for a second time.

    Encouraging people to predict future events does nothing to move humankind forward intellectually, it rewards those who succeed through happy coincidences, random correlations and just generally blind luck.

  • dmytryl

    Look, people make bets on all sorts of completely silly superstitious stuff. You making a bet should not persuade anyone

    You have some wealth, you want to be able to convert that wealth into persuasiveness, that doesn’t work (nor it should, because the bets are only informative of the beliefs if the bets are made purely to maximize wealth through betting! Not when money are made by other means and then spent via betting to buy influence), and you’re coming up with silly reasons why the world is wrong that it doesn’t work. That’s all.

    Furthermore, agent’s actions are influenced by their beliefs anyway. E.g. if some guy works in highest paid position at a church construction project (building some sort of cathedral) and claims to believe he’ll go to awesome heaven if the cathedral they’re building will be great, but pays himself way too much money, there’s something wrong with his beliefs.

    • You have some wealth, you want to be able to convert that wealth into persuasiveness,

      A given amount bet, of course, means less to the wealthy. Therefore, to provide a better index of strength of belief, bettors should be encouraged–on pain of ridicule–to reveal their worth and income, with proof, including tax returns. Maybe Robin will take the lead, particularly with regard to prediction-market investments (which would also provide incentives to signal how awesome betting is).

    • VV

      Also, in the context of making most money, when betting you should try
      to be as unpersuasive as you possibly could outside the bet itself, just
      so you have more people betting against. Everyone can see that you both
      betting on something and promoting it is not consistent with you trying
      to make money from bets

      I think this is the key point: bets generate perverse incentives w.r.t. dissemination of knowledge.

      If Alice strongly believes that X is true, and wants to profit from that belief by betting on it, then she needs a Bob who takes the other side of the bet.

      Thus she certainly has no incentive in persuading Bob that X is true, otherwise he wouldn’t be betting on X being false. On the contrary, Alice has an incentive to misrepresent her own knowledge in order to persuade Bob that X is false and that she believes X because she is mistaken. Therefore Alice has an incentive to withhold evidence and arguments for X, or even engage in deliberate deception.

      Moreover, a third party Carol observing Alice and Bob betting on X generally gains no evidence on whether X is likely to be true.

      It seems to me that aggressively asking other people to bet on scientific beliefs and calling them out if they refuse is an attempt to poison the well and derail proper debate towards ad hominem attacks.

  • Glen

    I haven’t read all the comments, so forgive me if someone’s already said this…

    As you say, betting is itself a form of signaling. Signaling models involve separating equilibria. When a form of a signaling is not present, there must be a pooling equilibrium. So… perhaps the norm against betting is a means of enforcing a pooling equilibrium. There are some people (specifically, bullshitters) who have an interest in maintaining the pooling so they cannot be outed as people with little confidence in their views.

  • But still the puzzle remains: whatever else we signal via conversation, why don’t we typically expect a betting offer to signal overall-admirable confidence in a claim?

    The best answer comes from considering why people often do bet casually on some things: sports events, which have been repeatedly mentioned but the key analytic point omitted. Most ordinary people don’t try to make objective assessments when they bet casually on sports events. They bet for their team!

    The reason betting doesn’t inspire confidence is that (as when a child trying to prove a point, demands: “Wanna bet” or fans bet on their team) betting is prototypical means for signaling allegiance without concern for truth.

  • stevesailer

    Dear Dr. Hanson:

    Why don’t you analyze betting in America? It’s a big phenomenon. The greatest interest in betting is when the odds approach 50-50. That’s why bookies give point spreads in football.

    In contrast, when the odds are that somebody is telling an unwelcome truth, such as in the recent case of Jason Richwine’s Harvard dissertation, nobody asks to bet him, they just try to silence him.

    • I agree 50/50 bets are more attractive, and that few want to bet those telling unwelcome truths. Which is exactly why a betting norm would help show such truths.

      • Then why don’t you come out and tell us what actual bet you’d propose regarding Dr. Richwine’s thesis that Mexican immigrants lower the national IQ. The best evidence, one supposes, is in the dissertation; so, what would the criterion be?

        The problem of criterion is one various commenters have mentioned. One might think you would take the opportunity to craft the appropriate criterion to show that betting is really widely applicable (rather than an opportunity to signal confidence: by painlessly advocating betting rather than painfully engaging in it).

        If you could craft a bet, I’d bet you that many “antiracists” could be induced to bet against Richwine, despite the intellectual merits of his case. It would be a great opportunity for ideological signaling. Betting him wouldn’t exclude repressing him; both send the same basic signal regarding “equality”; repressing him merely happens to be feasible, whereas betting against his position (like most intellectual positions) isn’t.

        [And when I say bet, I mean at 50-50 odds.]

  • Matt

    You should consider social attitudes towards pulling out a smartphone in order to settle a dispute about matters of verifiable fact (e.g. what year was the Cuban revolution, who has more home runs, etc). Looking a fact up on your phone is an even more clear cut truth-seeking device than betting, but I think it often rubs people the wrong way.

  • easy

    If I support my statements by bets, people correct my errors. So I may only bet as much as I’m willing to pay for getting the correct information. That might be zero, if I don’t want to be publicly ashamed for being wrong in 1 % of my statements. If some people also respond to the bets where I’m right, then I’m somewhat less ashamed but yet more ashamed than without the bets.

    Moreover, I’d do pricing mistakes every now and then, and people would only take the bets on uncertain claims priced according to too high probability estimates (too good odds). “The winners curse.”

    For these reasons one would be usually hesitant to bet even without the reasons given by Hanson. I do believe, that also his reasons are mainly correct.

    So I only benefit rarely, e.g., if I know something much better than others (so I can get both money and prestige) or I’m advocating a probably correct fact agains a widely-spread wrong fact and really want to advance the correct fact.

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  • srp

    Late to the party here, but one other (perhaps obvious) point is that I don’t care about your sincerity most of the time when I evaluate your point of view. Why should I, unless you are appealing to facts to which you claim to have superior access? The correctness of your position is not going to be enhanced by your conviction.

  • Grognor

    A few days ago I offered to bet on a trivial factual question. The other person said that both giving me money and receiving money from me were undesirable outcomes. So maybe another reason bets look bad is status quo bias.

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  • Ken Flago

    Interesting, but painful to read. Author needs some writing lessons, or I need a brain.

    • Well, the first sentence is truly terrible. (I recall thinking so when I first read it.):

      “Most social worlds lack a norm of giving much extra respect to claims supported by offers to bet.”

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