Search Results for: signal

Big Signals

Between $6 and $9 trillion dollars—about 8% of annual world-wide economic production—is currently being spent on projects that individually cost more than $1 billion. These mega-projects (including everything from buildings to transportation systems to digital infrastructure) represent the biggest investment boom in human history, and a lot of that money will be wasted. …

Over the course of the last fifteen years, [Flyvbjerg] has looked at hundreds of mega-projects, and he found that projects costing more than $1 billion almost always face massive cost overruns. Nine out of ten projects faces a cost overrun, with costs 50% higher than expected in real terms not unusual. …

In fact, the number of mega-projects completed successfully—on time, on budget, and with the promised benefits—is actually too small for Flyvbjerg to determine why they succeeded with any statistical validity. He estimates that only one in a thousand mega-projects fit that criteria. (more; paper)

You can probably throw most big firm mergers into this big inefficient project pot.

There’s a simple signaling explanation here. We like to do big things, as they make us seem big. We don’t want to be obvious about this motive, so we pretend to have financial calculations to justify them. But we are purposely sloppy about those calculations, so that we can justify the big projects we want.

It would be possible to make prediction markets that accurately told us on average that these financial calculations are systematically wrong. That could enable us to reject big projects that can’t be justified by reasonable calculations. But the people initiating these projects don’t want that, so it would have to be outsiders who set up these whistleblowing prediction markets. But alas as with most whistleblowers, the supply of these sort of whistleblowers is quite limited.

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Sleep Signaling

We sleep less well when we sleep together:

Our collective weariness is the subject of several new books, some by professionals who study sleep, others by amateurs who are short of it. David K. Randall’s “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep” belongs to the latter category. It’s a good book to pick up during a bout of insomnia. …

Research studies consistently find … that adults “sleep better when given their own bed.” One such study monitored couples over a span of several nights. Half of these nights they spent in one bed and the other half in separate rooms. When the subjects woke, they tended to say that they’d slept better when they’d been together. In fact, on average they’d spent thirty minutes more a night in the deeper stages of sleep when they were apart. (more)

In 2001, the National Sleep Foundation reported that 12% of American couples slept apart with that number rising to 23% in 2005. … Couples experience up to 50% more sleep disturbances when sleeping with their spouse. (more)

Why do we choose to sleep together, and claim that we sleep better that way, when in fact we sleep worse? This seems an obvious example of signaling aided by self-deception. It looks bad to your spouse to want to sleep apart. In the recent movie Hope Springs, sleeping apart is seen as a big sign of an unhealthy relation; most of us have internalized this association. So to be able to send the right sincere signal, we deceive ourselves into thinking we sleep better.

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More signaling

Centurion: Where is Brian of Nazareth?
Brian: You sanctimonious bastards!
Centurion: I have an order for his release!
Brian: You stupid bastards!
Mr. Cheeky: Uh, I’m Brian of Nazareth.
Brian: What?
Mr. Cheeky: Yeah, I – I – I’m Brian of Nazareth.
Centurion: Take him down!
Brian: I’m Brian of Nazareth!
Victim #1: Eh, I’m Brian!
Mr. Big Nose: I’m Brian!
Victim #2: Look, I’m Brian!
Brian: I’m Brian!
Victims: I’m Brian!
Gregory: I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!

– Monty Python’s Life of Brian

It’s easy for everyone to claim to be Brian. What Brian (and those who wish to identify him) need is a costly signal: an action that’s only worth doing if you are Brian, given that anyone who does the act will be released. In Brian’s life-or-death situation it is pretty hard to arrange such a thing. But in many other situations, costly signals can be found. An unprotected posture can be a costly signal of confidence in your own fighting ability, if this handicap is small for a competent fighter but dangerous for a bad fighter. College can act as a costly signal of diligence, if lazy, disorganized people who don’t care for the future would find attending college too big a cost for the improved job prospects.

A situation requires costly signaling when one party wishes to treat two types of people differently, but both types of people want to be treated in the better way. An analogous way to think of this as a game is that Nature decides between A or -A, then the sender looks at Nature’s choice, and gives a signal to the receiver, B or -B. Then the receiver takes an action, C or -C. The sender always wants the receiver to do C, but the receiver wants to do C if A and -C if -A. To stop the sender from lying, you can modify the costs to the sender of B and -B.

Suppose instead that the sender and the receiver perfectly agreed: either both wanted C always, or both wanted C if A and -C if -A. Then the players can communicate perfectly well even if all of the signals are costless – the sender has every reason to tell the receiver the truth.

If players can have these two kinds of preferences, and you have two players, these are the two kinds of signaling equilibria you can have (if the receiver always wants C, then he doesn’t listen to signals anyway).

Most of the communication in society involves far more than two players. But you might suppose it can be basically decomposed into two player games. That is, if two players who talk to each other both want C iff A, you might suppose they can communicate costlessly, regardless of who the first got the message from and where the message goes to. If the first one always wants C, you might expect costly signaling. If the second does, you might expect the message to be unable to pass that part in the chain. This modularity is important, because we mostly want to model little bits of big communication networks using simple models.

Surprisingly, this is not how signaling pairs fit together. To see this, consider the simplest more complicated case: a string of three players, playing Chinese Whispers. Nature chooses, the sender sees and tells an intermediary, who tells a receiver, who acts. Suppose the sender and the intermediary both always want C, while the receiver wants to act appropriately to Nature’s choice. By the above modular thesis, there will be a signaling equilibrium where the first two players talk honestly for free, and the second and third use costly signals between them.

Suppose everyone is following this strategy: the sender tells the intermediary whatever she sees, and the intermediary also tells the receiver honestly, because when he would like to lie the signal to do so is too expensive. Suppose you are the sender, and looking at Nature you see -A. You know that the other players follow the above strategy. So if you tell the intermediary -A, he will transmit this to the receiver, though he would rather not modulo signal prices. And that’s too bad for you, because you want C.

Suppose instead you lie and say A. Then the intermediary will pay the cost to send this message to the receiver, since he assumes you too are following the above set of strategies. Then the receiver will do what you want: C. So of course you lie to the intermediary, and send the message you want with all the signaling costs of doing so accruing to the intermediary. Your values were aligned with his before taking into account signaling costs, but now they are so out of line you can’t talk to each other at all. Given that you behave this way, he will quickly stop listening to you. There is no signaling equilibrium here.

In fact to get the sender to communicate honestly with the intermediary, you need the signals between the sender and the intermediary to be costly too. Just as costly as the ones between the intermediary and the receiver, assuming the other payoffs involved are the same for each of them. So if you add an honest signaling game before a costly signaling game, you get something that looks like two costly signaling games.

For example, take a simple model where scientists observe results, and tell journalists, who tell the public. The scientist and the journalist might want the public to be excited regardless of the results, whereas the public might want to keep their excitement for exciting results. In order for journalists who have exciting news to communicate it to the public, they need to find a way of sending signals that can’t be cheaply imitated by the unlucky journalists. However now that the journalists are effectively honest, scientists have reason to misrepresent results to them. So before information can pass through the whole chain, the scientists need to use costly signals too.

If you have an arbitrarily long chain of people talking to each other in this way, with any combination of these two payoff functions among the intermediaries, everyone who starts off always wanting C must face costly signals, of the same size as if they were in an isolated two player signaling game. Everyone who wants C iff A can communicate for free. It doesn’t matter whether communicating pairs are cooperative or not, before signaling costs. So for instance a whole string of people who apparently agree with one another can end up using costly signals to communicate because the very last one talks to someone who will act according to the state of the world.

So such things are not modular in the way you might first expect, though they are easily predicted by other simple rules. I’m not sure what happens in more complicated networks than strings. The aforementioned results might influence how networks form, since in practice it should be effectively cheaper overall to direct information through smaller numbers of people with the wrong type of payoffs. Anyway, this is something I’ve been working on lately. More here.

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Covert virtue – the signal that doesn’t bark?

An attitude I often come across is that if you do a virtuous thing, it is impolite to blow your own trumpet about it. ‘Give privately!’ is the catchcry. Even those who are open about their good deeds are likely to hold a special admiration for anyone they discover has been secretly helping others for years, and never even mentioned it.

I asked around and apparently this norm exists because when you go on about your altruism, it calls into question  your motivation. Perhaps you made that donation just to be able to show off your virtue and wealth to everyone else, rather than being motivated by ‘pure’ compassion. Someone who only cared about helping others would apparently keep their hands busy, and their mouth shut.

I think the reality is the complete reverse. A culture of ‘private altruism’ has some seriously perverse effects, and anyone who really cares about doing good in the world should be working to undermine it.

Firstly, it means we are less inclined to talk about and share the information we have about which causes are most valuable and effective. Given that donations to charity and other approaches to making the world a better place vary in cost effectiveness across many orders of magnitude, this is a huge loss.

Secondly, if people can’t gain social acceptance from altruistic acts, those acts will tend to be crowded out by alternatives that are unavoidably conspicuous – impressive cars, holidays, degrees and so forth – that will do a better job of signalling how rich, noble and interesting they are. On top of this, people will become biased towards conspicuous but ineffective ways of helping others. It’s easy to keep a (very valuable!) bank transfer secret, and pretty gauche to post the receipt on social media sites. But flying to Africa to help build a school, or signing up to a Facebook group? Everyone will find out about that! Sadly, signalling ‘arms races’ over conspicuous consumption and slacktivism, rather than ‘effective altruism’, are exactly what I observe around me.

In light of this, private giving, far from being consistent with a pure and virtuous motivation, is actually deeply suspicious. Someone who really cared about helping others as much as possible, and was making substantial sacrifices to do so, would want to bring up the fact whenever they could get away with it, in order to draw attention to the merits of their cause and prompt others to join in. Those who ‘give privately’, must care more about blindly following harmful social norms – or more likely, getting extra admiration for their deeds when people ‘accidentally’ discover what they have secretly been up to. This could be a ‘signal that doesn’t bark.’

So next time you do something good, find a way to shout it from the rooftops, especially if the act is particularly big, valuable or easy to do discreetly. If anyone tries to call you out for ‘showing off’, politely explain why the pure of heart have no choice.

Update: Here’s an amusing video on the topic. (HT David Barry)

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Signaling bias in philosophical intuition

Intuitions are a major source of evidence in philosophy. Intuitions are also a significant source of evidence about the person having the intuitions. In most situations where onlookers are likely to read something into a person’s behavior, people adjust their behavior to look better. If philosophical intuitions are swayed in this way, this could be quite a source of bias.

One first step to judging whether signaling motives change intuitions is to determine whether people read personal characteristics into philosophical intuitions. It seems to me that they do, at least for many intuitions. If you claim to find libertarian arguments intuitive, I think people will expect you to have other libertarian personality traits, even if on consideration you aren’t a libertarian. If consciousness doesn’t seem intuitively mysterious to you, one can’t help wonder if you have a particularly un-noticable internal life. If it seems intuitively correct to push the fat man in front of the train, you will seem like a cold, calculating sort of person. If it seems intuitively fine to kill children in societies with pro-children-killing norms, but you choose to condemn it for other reasons, you will have all kinds of problems maintaining relationships with people who learn this.

So I think people treat philosophical intuitions as evidence about personality traits. Is there evidence of people responding by changing their intuitions?

People are enthusiastic to show off their better looking intuitions. They identify with some intuitions and take pleasure in holding them. For instance, in my philosophy of science class the other morning, a classmate proudly dismissed some point, declaring,’my intuitions are very rigorous’. If his intuitions are different from most, and average intuitions actually indicate truth, then his are especially likely to be inaccurate. Yet he seems particularly keen to talk about them, and chooses positions based much more strongly on they than others’ intuitions.

I see similar urges in myself sometimes. For instance consistent answers to the Allais paradox are usually so intuitive to me that I forget which way one is supposed to err. This seems good to me. So when folks seek to change normative rationality to fit their more popular intuitions, I’m quick to snort at such a project. Really, they and I have the same evidence from intuitions, assuming we believe one anothers’ introspective reports. My guess is that we don’t feel like coming to agreement because they want to cheer for something like ‘human reason is complex and nuanced and can’t be captured by simplistic axioms’ and I want to cheer for something like ‘maximize expected utility in the face of all temptations’ (I don’t mean to endorse such behavior). People identify with their intuitions, so it appears they want their intuitions to be seen and associated with their identity. It is rare to hear a person claim to have an intuition that they are embarrassed by.

So it seems to me that intuitions are seen as a source of evidence about people, and that people respond at least by making their better looking intuitions more salient. Do they go further and change their stated intuitions? Introspection is an indistinct business. If there is room anywhere to unconsciously shade your beliefs one way or another, it’s in intuitions. So it’s hard to imagine there not being manipulation going on, unless you think people never change their beliefs in response to incentives other than accuracy.

Perhaps this isn’t so bad. If I say X seems intuitively correct, but only because I guess others will think seeing X as intuitively correct is morally right, then I am doing something like guessing what others find intuitively correct. Which might be a bit of a noisy way to read intuitions, but at least isn’t obviously biased. That is, if each person is biased in the direction of what others think, this shouldn’t obviously bias the consensus. But there is a difference between changing your answer toward what others would think is true, and changing your answer to what will cause others to think you are clever, impressive, virile, or moral. The latter will probably lead to bias.

I’ll elaborate on an example, for concreteness. People ask if it’s ok to push a fat man in front of a trolley to stop it from killing some others. What would you think of me if I said that it at least feels intuitively right to push the fat man? Probably you lower your estimation of my kindness a bit, and maybe suspect that I’m some kind of sociopath. So if I do feel that way, I’m less likely to tell you than if I feel the opposite way. So our reported intuitions on this case are presumably biased in the direction of not pushing the fat man. So what we should really do is likely further in the direction of pushing the fat man than we think.

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Work Face Signals

Imagine that a firm required its employees to be constantly monitored by the new rapidly-improving techs for reading face/body/voice tones. Employees must also wear body sensors to measure their heart rate, skin sweat, etc., to further read their mood and emotions. This firm argues that this will let them better measure who is working how hard, who is really engaged in their work, etc. Are you outraged? Will laws be passed to stop this?

Now consider how much we now waste on commuting, so firms can monitor employees better via face-to-face interactions:

Americans spend a ton of time commuting. According to happiness researchers, commuting is the low point of the typical day. If you look at the jobs that people actually do, though, it’s hard to understand why so many workers continue to commute. Given a computer and high-speed Internet, most desk jobs could now be done from home – or so it seems. Telecommuting wouldn’t just save workers time, frustration, and fuel; it would also let firms drastically reduce their overhead – and pass the savings along to their customers. … [Alas,] workers physically commute for signaling reasons. Employers can monitor your productivity better when you actually come to the office. Workers who telecommute put themselves on the slow track to success – if they can even get hired in the first place. (more)

Not outraged by this? The added cost of the tone readers is far less than the added cost of commuting. So if you think the value of the signals found by seeing people face to face is worth the huge added cost of commuting, how can you object to getting even more info at a far lower added cost?

This seems to me an obvious example of a status quo bias. Because face-to-face monitoring has long been the status quo, it seems ok. But adding tone monitors and body sensors would be new, so they are horrible intrusions on our natural privacy.

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Work Signals

The average American worker gets 14 vacation days a year and only uses 12 of them. That adds up to 226 million unused vacation days, or approximately $34.3 billion dollars of work. That’s amazing. It’s not that surprising though as we are in one of the worst periods of unemployment in quite some time and many people are probably cutting back on vacation days in order to be more productive. It’s not exactly fair but it’s human nature, if I’m concerned about getting fired then the last thing I’m going to do is take a vacation day. (more)

For workers ages 55 and older, the survey found that nearly 30 percent have between five and 10 vacation days left over at the end of each year. Further, it found that only a quarter of workers 55 and older had used up all of their allotted vacation time by year’s end. (more)

66% of employees failed to use up their vacation days last year. … “Tons of people feel they don’t have the discretionary spending to take vacation, so they just stay at work.” That’s a very bad idea, experts say. “The research is clear that failing to take a vacation creates higher levels of stress and greater levels of disengagement at work,” Matthews reports.

“It’s silly to think that giving up vacation is going to make your colleagues think how important you are,” says … a career services expert. … “Take your vacation and let them miss you.” After all, you can never get back those days you didn’t use–or the once-in-a-lifetime memories they might have produced. “Vacations are underrated,” agrees Joan Kane, a Manhattan psychologist who has worked as a therapist for 22 years. … They satisfy a deep need to feel that you’re in control of your own time. “On vacation you have no boss to satisfy.” (more)

Oddly, most who comment on unused vacation time both note that there exist signaling incentives to work more than required, and tell people that taking vacation time would be good for them, as if they were ignorant of such advantages. This seems a common idealistic message – exhorting people to do what they would if there were no signaling incentives. If the point were to give people useful info this would be pointless, but if the point is to reaffirm shared sacred values, it works fine.

While many commenters lament the presumed inefficiency of this signaling equilibrium, it is worth noting that employees often also inefficiently go out of their way to signal defiance of employers. Most employers are reluctant to cut wages in a downturn, to give employees frequent direct negative feedback, or to require them to wear uniforms, sing corporate songs, etc., all because employers know that employees would respond badly with signals of defiance. These signaling equilbria can be just as inefficient as taking too little vacation, but few commenters lament these distortions. Because the sacred shared values we want to affirm are more about defying firm authorities, rather than submitting to them.

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Slang Signals

From a review of the new book “The Life of Slang”:

“The arguments in favor of slang [are] about slang itself: it is vibrant, creative, and so on,” she writes. “These qualities might be attributed to slang-creators. The arguments against [are] largely about slang-users: they’re unintelligent and have limited vocabularies. And that’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to take sides in this argument: slang words often are witty and appealing, but not all slang-users are. On the other hand, slang-users might be perfectly charming were it not for their irritating repetition of tired slang words. …

What really sets slang apart from Standard English is the way it functions in social contexts: communicating meaning is often a secondary function for slang; it’s really for communicating attitudes and cementing relationships.”

Slang “creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging.” To Coleman, “the importance of slang in creating and maintaining a sense of group or personal identity” is paramount, and all the evidence supports her. Groups that have developed slang as a way of cementing their identity include the military, especially in the lower ranks. …

In sum, according to Coleman, “slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words.” … “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste,” Coleman writes, “but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends.” (more)

I suppose this helps explains why I’m not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

While I have fun talking the way I do, that isn’t really what people mean by “fun-loving, youthful” – they mean more that if you were young you’d be sending the right signals about your being a good person for others to have fun with. You’d be a good person for the typical young person to have as a friend, associate, or lover. And that, I’m not.

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How Social Are Signals?

We are aware that do many things for show, and I often suggest that we do such “signaling” more often than we realize. But while I’m eager to see writings on signaling theories and their empirical support, I’ve come to suspect that most tend to be unrealistically asocial. Let me explain.

In the iconic signaling story, one person has a hidden feature, which they choose to show to one other person, via some visible action. For example, on Valentine’s day a man traditionally buys a gift, writes a poem, etc. to show a women the strength of his feelings for her. The bigger the gift, the bigger his feelings, supposedly.

In this iconic situation, only these two parties matters. And this allows for simple sharp predictions. For example, if the person watching can’t see the signal, or already knows about the feature, there is no point in signaling. And there is no point in taking an action A to show feature F if that feature is unrelated to willingness to do A.

In realistic signaling, however, third parties typically matter a lot more. For example, the man might want to signal that other women want him, or that he knows that other men want her. The woman might care less about what she infers from his signal, and more about being able to let slip details to her friends, to show them the kind of man she has. This inclusion of a wider social circle makes it harder to find simple sharp tests.

I’ve talked about how schooling could be such a more social signal, and how that could complicate empirical testing:

Firms want to impress customers, suppliers, investors, etc. with the quality of their employees, and hiring graduates from prestigious schools helps them signal such quality. Hiring such graduates can also help a manager to impress his bosses, potential employees, and sister divisions about the quality of his employees. … The fact that attending school seem to cause changes in students that employers are willing to pay for does not show that school isn’t all about signaling. (more)

Similarly, people often respond to my suggestion that medical care functions in large part to “show that you care” with the example of people buying medicine for themselves. “Surely that can’t be signaling,” they suggest. But consider that unattached women often buy themselves flowers or chocolates on Valentines day. As signals become more social, and involve wider circles, it gets harder to isolate situations where no signaling should happen.

By the way, one way to think about “status” is as the limit of very social signals. The more that an action or sign is generally seen as positive, without being very specific about what good features it indicates or who exactly cares about such features, the more that this action or sign looks like a signal of general social status.

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Sex Ratio Signaling

Nicholas Eberstadt on a “Global War Against Baby Girls“:

An ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination, … skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males, … sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls. … From a collision of three forces: first, local mores that uphold a truly merciless preference for sons; second, low or sub-replacement fertility trends, … and third, the availability of health services and technologies. … The total population of the regions beset by unnaturally high SRBs [= sex ratio at birth] amounted to 2.7 billion, or about 40 percent of the world’s total population.

Matt Ridley agrees, and is “pessimistic” about this “distortion.” But neither of them object to the lower fertility that is a contributing cause, nor to the morality of the act of abortion. So what exactly is the problem? A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

Eberstadt elaborates:

The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. …[This] establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.

What “new social reality”? A preference for boys was there and clear to all before selective abortion came on the scene.

Moreover, enduring and extreme SRB imbalances set the demographic stage for an incipient “marriage squeeze.” …  Unmarried men appear to suffer greater health risks than their married counterparts. …. A steep rise in the proportion of unmarried and involuntarily childless men begs the question of old-age support for that rising cohort.

But these are all about things getting worse for men, which is exactly how supply and demand solves such a “problem.” Finally, Eberstadt invokes some externalities:

The “rising value of women” can have perverse and unexpected consequences, including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women. … Such trends could quite conceivably lead to increased crime, violence, and social tensions — or possibly even a greater proclivity for social instability. All in all, mass sex selection can be regarded as a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic, in which the aggregation of individual (parental) choices has the inadvertent result of degrading the quality of life for all.

Now more voluntary prostitution in such a context is not obviously a bad thing. Yes, kidnapping and crime are bad, but there is little mixed evidence such things are increasing due to having more males. There is, however, good evidence that males now compete more by increasing their savings rate, which is overall good for the world.

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have more lives that are more pleasant?

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