Search Results for: signal

Radical Signals

Many people tout big outside-the-Overton “radical” proposals for change. They rarely do this apologetically; instead, they often do this in a proud and defiant tone. They seem to say directly that their proposal deserves better than it has gotten, and indirectly that they personally should be admired for their advocacy.

Such advocacy also tends to look a lot like costly signaling. That is, advocates seem to go out of their way to pay costs, such as via protests, meetings, writing redundant boring diatribes, accosting indifferent listeners at parties, implying that others don’t care enough, and so on. But it so, what exactly are they signaling?

If you recall, costly signaling is a process whereby you pay visible costs, but make sure that those costs are actually less when some parameter X is higher. If you get a high enough payoff from persuading audiences that X is high, you are plausibly willing to pay for these costly signals, in order to produce this persuasion. For example, you pay to go to school, but since school is easier if your are smart and conformist, going to school shows those qualities to observers.

Here are six things you might show about a radical proposal:

Investment – It is a good financial investment. You pay costs to initiate or improve a business venture or investment fund that includes variations on this proposal. Doing so is less costly, and even net profitable for you, if this turns out to be a profitable project. By visibly paying costs, you hope to convince others to join your investment.

Popularity – It will eventually become more popular. You lend your time, attention, and credibility to a “movement” in favor of this proposal. This effort on your part may be rewarded with praise, prestige, and attention if this movement becomes a lot more popular and fashionable. You hope that your visible support will convince others to add their support.

Morality – You, and the other supporters of this proposal, are unusually moral. You pick a proposal which, if passed, would impose large costs in the service of a key moral goal. For example, you might proposal a 90% tax on the rich, or no limits on encryption. Others have long been aware of those extreme options, but due to key tradeoffs they preferred less extreme options. You show your commitment to one of the values that are traded off by declaring you are willing to lose big on all the other considerations, if only you can win on yours.

Conformity – You are a loyal member of some unusual group. You show that loyalty by burning your bridges with other groups, via endorsing radical proposals which much put off other groups. This is similar to adopting odd rules on food and dress, or strange religious or ideological beliefs. Once a radical proposal is associated with your group for any reason, you show loyalty to that group by supporting that proposal.

Inventive – You are clever enough to come up with surprising solutions. You take a design problem that has vexed many, and offer a new design proposal that seems unusually simple elegant, and effective. Relative to someone who wanted to show effectiveness, your proposal would be simpler and more elegant, and it would focus on solving the problems that seem most visible and vexing to observers, instead of what are actually the most important problems. It would also tend to use theories that observers believe in, relative to theories that are true.

Effective – If adopted, your proposal would be effective at achieving widely held goals. To show effectiveness, you incur costs to show things that are correlated with effectiveness. For example, you might design, start, or complete related theoretical analyses, fault analyses, lab experiments, or field experiments. You might try to search for problematic scenarios or effects related to your proposal, and search for design variations that could better address them. You might search for plans to do small scale trials that can give clearer cheaper results, and that address some key potential problems.

In principle showing each of these things can also show the others. For example, showing that something is moral might help show its potential to become popular. Still, we can distinguish what an advocate is more directly trying to show, from what showing that would indirectly show.

It seems to me that, among the above options, the most socially valuable form of signaling is effectiveness. If we could induce an equilibrium where people tried to show the other things via trying to show effectiveness, we’d induce a lot more useful effort to figure out what variations are effective, which should help us to find and adopt more and better radical proposals. If we can’t get that, inventiveness seems the second best option.

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Overconfidence From Moral Signaling

Tyler Cowen in Stubborn Attachments:

The real issue is that we don’t know whether our actions today will in fact give rise to a better future, even when it appears that they will. If you ponder these time travel conundrums enough, you’ll realize that the effects of our current actions are very hard to predict,

While I think we often have good ways to guess which action is more likely to produce better outcomes, I agree with Tyler than we face great uncertainty. Once our actions get mixed up with a big complex world, it becomes quite likely that, no matter what we choose, in fact things would have turned out better had we made a different choice.

But for actions that take on a moral flavor, most people are reluctant to admit this:

If you knew enough history you’d see >10% as the only reasonable answer, for most any big historical counterfactual. But giving that answer to the above risks making you seem pro-South or pro-slavery. So most people express far more confidence. In fact, more than half give the max possible confidence!

I initially asked a similar question on if the world would have been better off overall if Nazis had won WWII, and for the first day I got very similar answers to the above. But I made the above survey on the South for one day, while I gave two days for the Nazi survey. And in its second day my Nazi survey was retweeted ~100 times, apparently attracting many actual pro-Nazis:

Yes, in principle the survey could have attracted wise historians, but the text replies to my tweet don’t support that theory. My tweet survey also attracted many people who denounced me in rude and crude ways as personally racist and pro-Nazi for even asking this question. And suggested I be fired. Sigh.

Added 13Dec: Many call my question ambiguous. Let’s use x to denote how well the world turns out. There is x0, how well the world actually turned out, and x|A, how well the world have turned out given some counterfactual assumption A. Given this terminology, I’m asking for P(x>x0|A).  You may feel sure you know x0, but you should not feel sure about  x|A; for that you should have a probability distribution.

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Bets As Signals of Article Quality

On October 15, I talked at the Rutgers Foundation of Probability Seminar on Uncommon Priors Require Origin Disputes. While visiting that day, I talked to Seminar host Harry Crane about how the academic replication crisis might be addressed by prediction markets, and by his related proposal to have authors offer bets supporting their papers. I mentioned to him that I’m now part of a project that will induce a great many replication attempts, set up prediction markets about them beforehand, and that we would love to get journals to include our market prices in their review process. (I’ll say more about this when I can.)

When the scheduled speaker for the next week slot of the seminar cancelled, Crane took the opening to give a talk comparing our two approaches (video & links here). He focused on papers for which it is possible to make a replication attempt and said “We don’t need journals anymore.” That is, he argued that we should not use which journal is willing to publish a paper as a signal of paper quality, but that we should use the signal of what bet authors offer in support of their paper.

That author betting offer would specify what would count as a replication attempt, and as a successful replication, and include an escrowed amount of cash and betting odds which set the amount a challenger must put up to try to win that escrowed amount. If the replication fails, the challenger wins these two amounts minus the cost of doing a replication attempt; if not the authors win that amount.

In his talk, Crane contrasted his approach with an alternative in which the quality signal would be the odds in an open prediction market of replication, conditional on a replication attempt. In comparing the two, Crane seems to think that authors would not usually participate in setting market odds. He lists three advantages of author bets over betting market odds: 1) Authors bets give authors better incentives to produce non-misleading papers. 2) Market odds are less informed because market participants know less that paper authors about their paper. 3) Relying on market odds allows a mistaken consensus to suppress surprising new results. In the rest of this post, I’ll respond.

I am agnostic on whether journal quality should remain as a signal of article quality. If that signal goes away, then we are talking about what other signals can be how useful. And if that signal remains, then we can be talking about other signals that might be used by journals to make their decisions, and also by other observers to evaluate article quality. But whatever signals are used, I’m pretty sure that most observers will demand that a few simple easy-to-interpret signals be distilled from the many complex signals available. Tenure review committees, for example, will need signals nearly as simple as journal prestige.

Let me also point out that these two approaches of market odds or author bets can also be applied to non-academic articles, such as news articles, and also to many other kinds of quality signals. For example, we could have author or market bets on how many future citations or how much news coverage an article will get, whether any contained math proofs will be shown to be in error, whether any names or dates will be shown to have been misreported in the article, or whether coding errors will be found in supporting statistical analysis. Judges or committees might also evaluate overall article quality at some distant future date. Bets on any of these could be conditional on whether serious attempts were made in that category.

Now, on the comparison between author and market bets, an obvious alternative is to offer both author bets and market odds as signals, either to ultimate readers or to journals reviewing articles. After all, it is hard to justify suppressing any potentially useful signal. If a market exists, authors could easily make betting offers via that market, and those offers could easily be flagged for market observers to take as signals.

I see market odds as easier for observers to interpret than author bet offers. First, authors bets are more easily corrupted via authors arranging for a collaborating shill to accept their bet. Second, it can be hard for observers to judge how author risk-aversion influences author odds, and how replication costs and author wealth influences author bet amounts. For market odds, in contrast, amounts take care of themselves via opposing bets, and observers need only judge any overall differences in wealth and risk-aversion between the two sides, differences that tend to be smaller, vary less, and matter less for market odds.

Also, authors would usually participate in any open market on their paper, giving those authors bet incentives and making market odds include their info. The reason authors will bet is that other participants will expect authors to bet to puff up their odds, and so other participants will push the odds down to compensate. So if authors don’t in fact participate, the odds will tend to look bad for them. Yes, market odds will be influenced by views others than those of authors, but when evaluating papers we want our quality signals to be based on the views of people other than paper authors. That is why we use peer review, after all.

When there are many possible quality metrics on which bets could be offered, article authors are unlikely to offer bets on all of them. But in an open market, anyone could offer to bet on any of those metrics. So an open market could show estimates regarding any metric for which anyone made an offer to bet. This allows a much larger range of quality metrics to be available under the market odds approach.

While the simple market approach merely bets conditional on someone attempting a replication attempt, an audit lottery variation that I’ve proposed would instead use a small fixed percentage of amounts bet to pay for replication attempts. If the amount collected is insufficient, then it and all betting amounts are gambled so that either a sufficient amount is created, or all these assets disappear.

Just as 5% significance is treated as a threshold today for publication evaluation, I can imagine particular bet reliability thresholds being important for evaluating article quality. News articles might even be filtered or show simple icons based on a reliability category. In this case the betting offer and market options would more tend to merge.

For example, an article might be considered “good enough” if it had no more than a 5% chance of being wrong, if checked. The standard for checking this might be if anyone was currently offering to bet at 19-1 odds in favor of reliability. For as long as the author or anyone else maintained such offers, the article would qualify as at least that reliable, and so could be shown via filters or icons as meeting that standard. For this approach we don’t need to support a market with varying prices; we only need to keep track of how much has been offered and accepted on either side of this fixed odds bet.

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Signaling Gains From Transparency

I said back in February:

For millennia, we humans have shown off our intelligence via complicated arguments and large vocabularies, health via sport achievement, heavy drink, and long hours, and wealth via expensive clothes, houses, trips, etc. Today we appear to have the more efficient signaling substitutes, such as IQ tests, medical health tests, and bank statements. Yet we continue to show off in the old ways, and rarely substitute such new ways. Why?

One explanation is inertia. Signaling equilibria require complex coordination, and those who try to change it via deviations can seem non-conformist and socially clueless. Another explanation is hypocrisy. As we discuss in our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, ancient and continuing norms against bragging push us to find plausible deniability for our brags. We can pretend that big vocabularies help us convey info, that sports are just fun, and that expensive clothes, etc. are prettier or more comfortable. It is much harder to find excuses to waive around your IQ test or bank statement for others to see.

It recently occurred to me that a sufficient lack of privacy would be an obvious fix for this problem. Imagine that it were easy to use face recognition to find someone’s official records, and from there to find out their net worth, IQ scores, and health test scores. In that case, observers could more cheaply acquire the same info that we are now try to show off in deniable ways.

Yes, we say to want to keep such info private, but the big efforts most of us go through to show off our smarts, health, and wealth suggests that we doth protest too much there. And as usual, it is less that we don’t know what policies would make us better off, and more than we don’t much care about that when we choose our political efforts.

Added 7a: Of course there may also be big disadvantages to losing privacy, and our evolved preferences may be tied more to particular surface behaviors and cues than to their general underlying signaling functions.

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Skip Value Signals

Consider the following two polls I recently held on Twitter:

As writers, these respondents think that readers won’t engage their arguments for factual claims on a policy relevant topics unless shown that the author shares the values of their particular political faction. But as readers they think they need no signal of shared values to convince them to engage such an argument. If these readers and writers are the same group, then they believe themselves to be hypocritical. They uphold an ideal that value signals should not be needed, but they do not live up to this ideal.

This seems to me part of a larger ideal worth supporting. The ideal is of a community of conversation where everything is open for discussion, people write directly and literally, and people respond mostly analytically to the direct and literal meanings of what people say. People make direct claims and explicit arguments, and refer to dictionaries for disputes about words mean. There’s little need for or acceptance of discussion of what people really meant, and any such claims are backed up by direct explicit arguments based on what people actually and directly said. Even when you believe there is subtext, your text should respond to their text, not to their subtext. Autists may be especially at home in such a community, but many others can find a congenial home there.

A simple way to promote these norms is to skip value signals. Just make your claims, but avoid adding extra signals of shared values. If people who respond leap to the conclusion that you must hold opposing values, calmly correct them, pointing out that you neither said nor implied such a thing. Have your future behavior remain consistent with that specific claim, and with the larger claim that you follow these norms. Within a context, the more who do this, and the more who support them, then the more reluctant others will become to publicly accuse people of saying things that they did not directly say. Especially due to missing value signals.

Of course this is unlikely to become the norm in all human conversation. But it can be the norm within particular intellectual communities. Being a tenured professor who has and needs little in the way of grants or other institutional support, I am in an especially strong position to take such a stance, to promote these norms in my conversation contexts. To make it a bit easier for others to follow. And so I do. You are welcome.

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Signal Inertia

For millennia, we humans have shown off our intelligence via complicated arguments and large vocabularies, health via sport achievement, heavy drink, and long hours, and wealth via expensive clothes, houses, trips, etc. Today we appear to have the more efficient signaling substitutes, such as IQ tests, medical health tests, and bank statements. Yet we continue to show off in the old ways, and rarely substitute such new ways. Why?

One explanation is inertia. Signaling equilibria require complex coordination, and those who try to change it via deviations can seem non-conformist and socially clueless. Another explanation is hypocrisy. As we discuss in our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, ancient and continuing norms against bragging push us to find plausible deniability for our brags. We can pretend that big vocabularies help us convey info, that sports are just fun, and that expensive clothes, etc. are prettier or more comfortable. It is much harder to find excuses to waive around your IQ test or bank statement for others to see.

Now consider these comments by Tyler Cowen on Bryan Caplan’s new book The Case Against Education:

Bryan’s strangest assumption, namely a sociologically-rooted, actually anti-economics “conformity is stronger than you think” argument, which Bryan uses to assert the status quo will continue more or less indefinitely. It won’t. To the extent Bryan is correct (and that you can debate, but at least he is more correct than most people in the educational establishment will let on), competency-based learning and changes in employer behavior will in fact bring about a new equilibrium…not quickly, but certainly in well under two decades.

And what about on-line education? Well, a lot of students don’t like it because they have to actually work on their own and pay attention. To the extent education really is just signaling, that should give on-line options a brighter future all the more. But not in the Caplanian world view, as conformity serves once again as an intervening factor. For better or worse, Bryan’s book subverts economics as a science at least as much as it does education. Bryan of course is smart enough to see the trade-offs here, and he knows if the standard model of economic competition were allowed to reign supreme, we would (even with subsidies, relative to those subsidies) tend to see strong moves toward relatively efficient means of signaling, if only through changes in the relative sizes of institutions.

Tyler suggests that Bryan’s views imply competency-based learning and on-line education are more efficient signals, and so should win a market competition for customers. Yet I don’t see it. Yes, such approaches may let some learn more faster, and signal what they have learned. But Bryan and I see school as less about learning.

Both competency-based learning and on-line education divorce learning from its usual social conformity context. You can use them to learn what you want when you want, and then to prove what you’ve learned. You don’t have to commit to and keep up with a standard plan of what to learn when shared by a large cohort, nor be visibly compared to this cohort.

Yes, such variations may let one better show initiative, independence, creativity, and self-actualization. And yes, we give lip service to admiring such features. But employers are not usually that eager to see such features in their employees. The usual learning plan, in contrast, is much more like a typical workplace, where workers have less freedom to choose their projects, must coordinate plans closely, and must deal with office politics and conformity pressures. It seems to me that success in the usual schooling plans work better as a signal of future workplace performance, and so would not be outcompeted by competency-based learning and on-line education. Even if they let you learn some things faster, and even if change was easier than it is.

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Toward Better Signals

While we tend to say and think otherwise, in fact much of what we do is oriented toward helping us to show off. (Our new book argues for this at length.) Assuming this is true, what does a better world look like?

In simple signaling models, people tend to do too much of the activities they use to signal. This suggests that a better world is one that taxes or limits such activities. Say by taxing or limiting school, hospitals, or sporting contests. However, this is hard to arrange because signaling via political systems tends to create the opposite: subsidies and minimum required levels of such widely admired activities. (Though socializing such activities under limited government budgets is often effective.) Also, if we put most all of our life energy into signaling, then limits or taxes on just signaling activities will mainly result in us diverting our efforts to other signals.

If some signaling activities have larger positive externalities, then it seems an obvious win to use taxes, subsidies, etc. to divert our efforts into those activities. This is plausibly why we try to praise people more for showing off via charity, innovation, or whistleblowing. Similarly, we tend to criticize activities like war and other violence with large negative externalities. We should continue to do these things, and also look for other such activities worthy of extra praise or criticism.

However, on reflection I think the biggest problem with signals today is the quality of our audience. When the audience that we want to impress knows little about how our visible actions connect to larger consequences, then we also need not attend much to such connections. For example, to show an audience that we care enough about someone via helping them to get medicine, we need only push the sort of medicine that our audience thinks is effective. Similarly for using charity to convince an audience we care about the poor, politics to convince an audience we care about our nation, or using creative activities to convince an audience we promote innovation.

What if our audiences knew more about which medicines helped health, which charities helped the poor, which national policies help the nation, or which creative activities promoted innovation? That would push us to also know more, and lead us to choose more effective medicines, charities, policies, and innovations. All to the world’s benefit. So what could make the audiences that we seek to impress know more about how our activities connect to these larger consequences?

One approach is make our audiences more elite. Today our efforts to gain more likes on social media have us pandering to a pretty broad and ignorant audience. In contrast, in many old-world rags-to-riches stories, a low person rose in rank via a series of encounters with higher persons, each of whom was suitably impressed. The more that we expect to gain via impressing better-informed elites, the better informed will our show-off actions be.

But this isn’t just about who we seek to impress. It is also about whether we impress them via many small encounters, or via a few big ones. In larger encounters, our audience can take more time to judge how much we really understand about what we are doing. Yes risk and randomness could dominate if the main encounters that mattered to us were too small in number. But we seem pretty far away from that limit at the moment. For now, we’d have a better world of signals if we tried more to impress via a smaller number of more intense encounters with better informed elites.

Of course to fill this role of a better informed audience, it isn’t enough for “elites” to merely be richer, prettier, or more popular. They need to actually know more about how signaling actions connect to larger consequences. So there can be outsized gains from better educating elites on such things, and from selecting our elites more from those who are better educated on them. And anything that distracts elites from performing well in this this crucial role can have outsized costs.

Of course there’s a lot more to figure out here; I’ve just scratched the surface. But still, I thought I should plant a flag now, and show that it is possible to think more carefully about how to make a better world, when that world is chock full of signaling.

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Authentic Signals

Many people (including me) claim that we eat food and drink water because without nutrition and fluids we would starve and dehydrate. Imagine this response:

No, people eat food because they are hungry, and drink water because they are thirsty. We don’t need abstract concepts like nutrition and dehydration to explain something so elemental as following our authentic feelings and desires.

Yes hunger and thirst are direct proximate causes of eating and drinking. But we are often interested in finding more distal explanations of such proximate causes. So almost no one objects to the nutrition and dehydration explanations of eating and drinking.

However, one of the most common criticisms I get about signaling explanations of human behavior is that we are instead just following authentic feelings and desires. As in this exchange:

Yes, people don’t need to consciously force themselves to express opinions on many topics. That habit comes quite naturally. Even so, we might want to explain that habit in terms of more basic distal forces.

I’m an economics professor, and the vast majority of economic papers and books that offer explanations for human behaviors don’t bother to distinguish if their explanations are mediated by conscious intentions or not. (In fact, most papers on any topic don’t take a stance on most possible distinctions related to their topic.) Economics are in fact famously wary (too wary I’d say) of survey data, as they fear conscious thoughts can mislead about economic behaviors.

Yet I’ve had even economics colleagues tell me that I should take more care, when I point out possible signaling explanations, to say if I am claiming that such signaling effects are consciously intended. But why would it be more important to distinguish conscious intentions in this context, compared to the rest of economics and social science?

My best guess is that what is going on here is that our social norms disapprove mildly of consciously intended signaling. Just as we aren’t supposed to brag, we also aren’t supposed to do things on purpose to make ourselves look good. It is okay to look good, but only as a side effect of doing things for other reasons. And as we usually claim other reasons for these behaviors, if we are actually doing them for signaling reasons we could also be accused of lying, which is also a norm violation.

Thus many see my signaling explanation proposals as accusing them personally of norm violations. At which point, they become vastly more interested in defending themselves against this accusation than in evaluating my general claims about human behavior. Perhaps if I were a higher status professor publishing in a prestigious journal, they might be reluctant to publicly challenge my claimed focus on distal explanations of general behavior patterns. But for mere tweets or blog posts by someone like me, they feel quite entitled to read me as accusing them of being bad people, unless I explicitly say otherwise. (And perhaps even then.) Sigh.

For the record, the degree of conscious intent of any behavior is a mildly interesting facet, but I’m less interested in it than are most people. This is in part because I’m inclined to give people less of a moral or legal pass on the harms resulting from behaviors if people do not consciously intend such consequences. It is just too easy for people to not notice such consequences, when they find it in their interest to not notice.

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What Is Signaling?

Noah Smith complains about people like me:

There’s a fad in the economics world that annoys me. The fad is to describe every human action as “signaling.” This has to stop, people. … It’s become fashionable in the economics world to label any and every human social interaction as a form of signaling. The most enthusiastic promoter of this way of thinking is GMU economist Robin Hanson. Fashion isn’t self-expression — it’s signaling. Leisure isn’t about fun — it’s about signaling. And so on.

The problem is, this notion of “signaling” isn’t really what Spence had in mind. Spence’s signaling model was about proving yourself by doing something difficult — something so difficult that someone who didn’t have what it takes wouldn’t even bother. But most of what Hanson is talking about is just communication, not Spence-style signaling. Even if hipsters wax their moustaches in order to prove their hip-ness, that doesn’t mean there are a whole bunch of wannabe hipsters out there who just didn’t have what it takes to wax their moustaches. Communication, like signaling, is costly. But it’s not a matter of jumping through hoops to prove yourself. (morefollowup)

Let’s distinguish three different kinds of messages I might send with my waxed moustache:

1) “I have thick shiney hair.” This message is verifiable. Soon enough, others can just directly check if it is true. So I don’t need to pay costs to send this message, though I may pay costs to create the nice hair.

2) “Hipster is one of my interest areas.” If you and I are going to talk anyway, but must pick a conversation topic, we may share a sufficient common interest in finding talk topics of mutual interest. In such a context, it can be enough for me to just tell you about my interests. You can just accept my claims for the purpose of picking a talk topic. Technically, this is a “cheap talk” message.

3) “I am especially devoted to the hipster ethos” or “I especially embody hipster ideals.” That is, I am especially willing to identify myself as a hipster, and my personal features are an especially high quality match to ideal hipster features, including having a creative and contrarian yet attractive and coherent personal style that fits with current hipster fashions. These messages are hard to verify, and the interests of observers and I conflict. While observers want to accurately rank me relative to others, I may want them to estimate me as having maximal devotion and quality. Since verification and cheap talk won’t work here, I have to show, not just say, my messages.

To show my hipster devotion, I can choose an appearance that is sufficiently off-putting to ordinary people at work, home, church, etc.. By paying the cost of putting off possible associates, I show my devotion to hipsterism. To show my hipster features, I can pay to track hipster fashions and to continually search in the space of possible styles for a combination that simultaneously reflects current fashions while being creative, coherent, and showing off my best personal features. Not being a hipster, I don’t know how exactly that works for them. But I do know, for example, that since lipstick and tight clothes make some bodies look better while making other bodies look worse, they are costly signals of the quality of lips and body shape. There must be similar factors for showing off hipster qualities.

More generally I call a message “signaling” if it has these features:

  1. It is not sent mainly via the literal meanings of words said.
  2. It is not easily or soon verifiable.
  3. It is mainly about the senders’ personal features, perhaps via association with groups.
  4. It is about sender “quality” dimensions where more is better, so senders want others to believe quality is as high as possible, while others want to assess more accurately. Such qualities are not just unitary, but can include degrees of loyalty to particular allies.

Cheap talk cannot send a message like this; one cannot just say such a thing, one must show it. And since it cannot be verified, one must show it indirectly, via how such features make one more willing or able to do something. And since willingness and ability track costs, these are “costly” signals.

When weighted by how much the messages matter to us, and by how much effort we put into adjusting them, I’d say that most of our communication is “signaling” of this sort. Most of the private value, if not most of the bits.

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Bets As Loyalty Signals

Why do men give women engagement rings? A standard story is that a ring shows commitment; by paying a cost that one would lose if the marriage fails, one shows that one places a high value on the marriage.

However, as a signal the ring has two problems. On the one hand, if the ring is easy to sell for its purchase price, then it detracts from the woman’s signal of the value she places on the marriage. Accepting a ring makes her look mercenary. On the other hand, if the ring can’t be sold for near its purchase price, and if the woman values the ring itself at less than its price, then the couple destroys value in order to allow the signal.

These are common problems with loyalty signals – either value is destroyed, or stronger signals on one side weakens signals from other sides. Value-destroying loyalty signals are very common in couples, clubs, churches, firms, professions, and nations. For example, we might give up poker nights for a spouse, pork food for a religion, casual clothes to be a manager, or old-world customs for a new nation.

A few days ago I had an idea for a more efficient loyalty signal. Imagine that when he was twenty a man made a $5000 bet that he would never marry before the age of fifty. Then when he is thirty-five and wants to marry, he can send a strong signal of his desire to marry just by his willingness to lose this bet. Since the bet is lost to a third party, it doesn’t hinder the bride’s ability to signal her loyalty. And assuming the bet is made at fair odds, the lost bets are on average paid to versions of this man in alternative scenarios where he doesn’t marry by fifty. So he retains the value, which is not destroyed.

Today this approach probably suffers from being weird, so doing this would also send an unwelcome signal of weirdness. But it is only a signal of one’s weirdness when one made the bet – maybe one can credibly claim to be less weird later when marrying. And the bet would remain potent as a signal of devotion.

There are many related applications. For example, a young person who bet that they would never join a religion might later credibly signal their devotion to that religion, and perhaps avoid having to eat and dress funny to show such devotion. Also, someone who bet that they would never change countries might signal their loyalty when they moved to a new nation. To let my future self signal his devotion to his political party, perhaps I should bet today that I’ll never join a political party. Do I have any takers?

Added 20July: Of course the need to lose a bet to get married would discourage some from getting married. But the same harm happens for any expectation of needing to send a loyalty signal if one gets married. This effect isn’t particular to bets as loyalty signals; it happens for all kinds of loyalty signals.

Mechanically one way to implement marriage bets as loyalty signals would be for parents to buy their sons male spinster insurance, which pays money to the son when he is fifty if he never marries, and otherwise gives him a nice visible cheap pin/brooch when he gets married. His new wife can wear the pin to brag about his devotion. The pin might be color coded to indicate how much money he sacrificed.

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