How Deep The Rabbit Hole?

You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. The Matrix

A new article in Evolutionary Psychology by Andrew Gersick and Robert Kurzban details the many ways that one can credibly show good features via covert signals. Covert signals are more subtle and complicated, and so signal intelligence and social savvy. By the details of your covert signals, you can show your awareness of details of social situations, of the risks and attitudes of the people to whom you signal, of the size and chances of the punishments you may suffer if your covert signals are uncovered, and of how much you are willing to risk such punishment:

Flirting is a class of courtship signaling that conveys the signaler’s intentions and desirability to the intended receiver while minimizing the costs that would accompany an overt courtship attempt. … Individuals who are courting [in this way] should vary the intensity of their signals to suit the level of risk attached to the particular social configuration, and receivers may assess this flexible matching of signal to context as an indicator of the signaler’s broader behavioral flexibility and social intelligence. …

Simply producing or interpreting implicature is challenging cognitive work. Moreover, the complexity—and consequent showiness—of implicature is clear in its essential structure. Whereas direct speech merely reports informational content, implicature manipulates meaning by playing that content off of the implicit knowledge shared between speaker and audience.

General intelligence is not the only quality one can demonstrate through indirect speech. Signaling subtly in appropriate situations can convey the signaler’s social awareness and adeptness, his cognizance of the potential costs attached to the sort of transaction he is proposing, his ability to skillfully reduce those costs, and, therefore, his worthiness as a partner. A discretely offered bribe not only opens a negotiation but shows that the aspiring briber knows how to avoid attracting attention. By the same token, the suitor who subtly approaches a woman with a jealous boyfriend does more than simply protect himself from physical assault. He shows his sensitivity to his target’s circumstances. … A slightly more transparent sexual signal might be optimal if the suitor wants to convey not only that he has the social intelligence to be moderately subtle, but also the implicit physical confidence to take on the risk of a fight with the boyfriend. ..

Courtship signals that are marked by … poor quality … [include] the highly overt, socially inappropriate signaling that we call boorishness (e.g., making crude advances to a friend’s partner). Another sort of bad match … is signaling weakly when the risks attached to a sexual advance are quite low, as in the shy mumbling of a high-schooler who knows his current companion is interested in him but still can’t manage to make a move. … A lowly waiter might feel empowered to flirt more openly with a rich customer’s wife if he were younger, taller and better looking than the husband. Calibrating one’s signal-intensity to the right pitch of flirtatiousness may require a blend of social awareness, behavioral flexibility. (more)

Note the reason for covertness here is not peculiar to mating – there are many other situations where a wider audience may object to or punish one for cooperating with particular others in particular ways. The more partially-enforced social norms that a society has, the more reasons its members have to develop ways to covertly coordinate to evade those norms.

Note also that while it so happens that we are often consciously aware that we are flirting, or that others are flirting with us, this need not always apply. We can often more credibly and sincerely deny our covert signals, and prevent their detection, when we are not consciously aware of such signals. Yes, doing such things unconsciously may cost us some in how carefully we can adapt those signals to the details of particular situations, if conscious minds are useful in such adaptation. Even so, being unconscious of covert signals may often be a net gain.

And here is where madness lies — where the rabbit hole you’ve fallen down opens into a vast black hole. Because once you realize that your unconscious mind might be doing a lot of covert talking with the unconscious minds of others, you have to realize that you may not actually know that much about what you are doing much of the time, or why you are doing it. Your conscious reasoning about what you should do, based on what you know about your conscious motivations and acts, could be quite flawed.

So the more that your conscious reasoning actually influences your actions, instead of being after the fact rationalizations, the more important it becomes to get some handle on this. Just how often are we how wrong about what we are doing and why? How could we find this out, and do we really want to?

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • James D Miller

    If autistics do less unconscious communication are their conscious brains more in control of their actions?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Competence isn’t awareness. People who speak Spanish do it mostly unconsciously, and I can’t speak Spanish (much). That doesn’t mean my actions are overall more conscious than theirs. Similarly, the fact that autistics are less socially savvy doesn’t mean that they are overall more conscious of their actions.

  • Peter Zhang

    Thank you for sharing this article, it spelled out the gnawing feeling I get in social situations where you realize subtle signalling and social dynamics, but it seems that people either tacitly acknowledging them or completely oblivious to them. As to the question you posited, I rather think that it is good or beneficial to be aware of what others are signalling but less so about what your motivations are. The reason for this is the hind-sight bias and double-dealing inherent in understanding oneself, and if we see ourself as a rain drop in a pond, then to know the initial velocity of the raindrop (i.e. ourself), we look at the result of ripple generated and hypothesis priori. To answer the second question, I think an obscene of time and effort will be required for us to hypothesize and test the theory of “self”, and the methods of doing so are not really scientific. For instance, psychoanalysis may not be the best tool of assessing others, but it prove to be excellent tool for introspection. Reverting back to the answer to the first question, since our motive and inner complexity can never be examined without bias nor proven scientifically, it is better to observe others to infer our own intention.

  • heryng red

    Note that Robin’s unconscious made the first letters of these paragraphs spell out “ANNA S”.

  • Itai Bar-Natan

    So people use complicated social moves in order to signal their social sophistication. Tell me, do you think good chess players play complicated tactics because complicated tactics signal skill in chess?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I didn’t say signaling ability is the only reason to use subtle strategies. But they can and do impress. Why do you think anyone cares who wins at chess?

  • Robert Koslover

    One of the things this essay suggests, and accurately in my view, is that achieving great skill in the art of covert signaling is very important to one’s success in life. Perhaps some school (e.g., GMU) should offer one or more formal courses in this subject? (I mean, beyond currently-existing courses in related subjects like psychology, etiquette, contract negotiations, etc.)

  • Robert Koslover

    One of the things this essay suggests, and accurately in my view, is that achieving great skill in the art of covert signaling is very important to one’s success in life. Perhaps some school (e.g., GMU) should offer one or more formal courses in this subject? (I mean, beyond currently-existing courses in related subjects like psychology, etiquette, contract negotiations, etc.)

  • Curt Adams

    It’s not madness to realize your consciousness isn’t running things, it’s reality. If you hook up an EEG to somebody and ask them to watch a clock and make voluntary movements, they report they decide to move a body part about 1/2 a second *after* their motor cortex starts the action. 1/2 a second is about how long it takes your brain to notice something, so that means your consciousness notices your brain starting to move, and attributes the motion to itself at the time it noticed it.

    You can notice this directly by doing complicated motions with multiple body parts at the same time and paying careful attention to all of them at once. Keeping up with multiple actions at the same time overtaxes your observational ability and slows down that 1/2 second delay to the point that the actual physical motion can start before your consciousness “decides” (actualy notices). That blows the illusion away and you realize that your brain+body is making the decisions and “you” are just watching and providing feedback.

    The illusion re-establishes itself rapidly once you stop paying careful attention. In a certain sense it’s not an illusion, because the parts of your brain that are making the decisions really are making the decisions. But yes, conscious mentation is just a small part of your overall mentation and probably not even the most important part.

    And
    here is where madness lies — where the rabbit hole you’ve fallen down
    opens into a vast black hole. Because once you realize that your
    unconscious mind might be doing a lot of covert talking with the
    unconscious minds of others, you have to realize that you may not
    actually know that much about what you are doing much of the time, or
    why you are doing it. Your conscious reasoning about what you should do,
    based on what you know about your conscious motivations and acts, could
    be quite flawed. – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/06/how-deep-the-rabbit-hole.html#disqus_thread

    • Curt Adams

      Oops, can that be edited? I pasted in a quote multiple times and it wasn’t showing up but it was apparently there.

    • Curt Adams

      Oops, can that be edited? I pasted in a quote multiple times and it wasn’t showing up but it was apparently there.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I did try to edit this, but it didn’t take; not sure why.

  • Joshua Brulé

    I haven’t thought about this so explicitly before, but it makes a lot of sense.

    I suspect some (many?) people “covertly flirt” to protect themselves from the mental pain of rejection. Rejection following a very direct proposal leaves no doubt in one’s mind that they are not desired. Rejection following subtle flirting can be internally dismissed as poor communication.

    Of course, this is a terrible idea in the long run; if the target of your affections is oblivious to your advances, you need to give up or make your advances more overt. But constant subtle flirting and rejection/obliviousness seems to match the ‘friend zone’ concept pretty well.

    I have no idea how to go about proving that this is the case…

  • Fuuma

    Congratulations! You’ve just discovered the stuff that un-scientific mystic psychoanalyst Carl Jung has observed long ago. =) He explicitly said in one of his books that “When two people are talking, there are really four sides participating in conversation” (That is, 2 people, and 2 unsonscious minds.) Imagine being a cop handcuffed with a criminal, when you go to some “cop
    bar” to talk to your buddy, who has another criminal cuffed to him. As you sip your coffee and eat your donuts, the criminals use secret criminal language to communicate. So why can’t it be that way with our u-minds? Also, it can get better: if we suppose that unconscious mind can be AT LEAST as strong as conscious one, why can’t we suspect that the totality of our unconscious minds do really form vast “network” that communicates by virtue of “seemingly telepathy” (because we can’t even detect what our u-minds speak about?). And about this presupposition about “unconscious mind being as strong” – it’s not as absurd as it may seem. For one, there are people with multiple personality disorder: they have literal “other minds” inside of them they are not aware of. For two, there are instances of people having their hemispheres divided who started acting as “two disagreeing people” sometimes. So, mind has shown itself at least some times capable of containing “more than one person” – just like you can have a new Windows and old Windows on a machine (maybe even a little Linux thrown in for extra fun). Besides, our brain is a black-box machine that is far yet from having been cracked – can we really be sure that it does not contain “extra persons” just in any human? Take your dreams, for example – you can meet persons there and have a semi-coherent or even coherent conversations with them. These people are “product of your brain” – but so (from a physical standpoint) are “you”. Besides, it’s not like these people cannot, for example, feel things or think about things, or lie and deceive you for fun and/or profit, or whatever. (I remember a dream when I realized that it’s a dream and told a friend she was in my dream, and so will she have dissolve once it ends. She was really frightened and geniunely saddened by that, and I then felt guilty. Even now I remember this guilt). So, the point is – if your brain produces “you” in waking life and it produces “you + other people” in your dream, why can’t it covertly produce “other people” in waking life, too? Who can know the real power of u-mind, especially since conscious mind is a recently fresh development, and u-mind had to “steer the wheel” all the millenia before it? …aaaaaand this is the objection Carl Jung seem to have had to pure rationality, and which I seem to share. Our “rationality” is just a part of what constitutes us, a relatively recent part, and possibly not the most IMPORTANT part (inasmuch it is a servant but not master). Those who claim that their rationality is, indeed, a master, seem to be tragically misguided, at least as long as they wear the same meatbag body as we all do. Although it pumps up the feeling of superiority. The best rationality we can have (if it is worth as a final goal at all) is impersonal rationality, rationality of science, which is independant of our selves and our intuitions. By fanatically making more and more precise theories that predict more and more accurately we may acquire the corpus of knowledge that is objective in some sense. The trouble is, of course, that this corpus is one thing, and we, mere humans, are another thing. We, for one, grok this knowledge in the form of language we are comfortable with – the language evolved from millenia of survival-struggle. It’s ironic that we discuss finer points of quantum physics, or general relativity, or evolutionary biology, in the language that descended from animal howls. But it’s not only ironic, but troubling and alarming: what if we, at some point, will have to devise a theory that our animal-derived thought processes will be unable to grok at all? We may still have this “scientific objective rationality”, but we as humans will be no more suited to practically use it as elephants are to playing piano. We already have trouble understanding quantum mechanics, and no, “shut up and calculate” isn’t a real answer, because people are easily worse calculators than, well, calculators, not to mention that calculation is not a way to predict some non-trivial experiments that could be done and that could show non-trivial properties of all that quantumy stuff.