Tag Archives: Fashion

Smart Sincere Contrarian Trap

We talk as if we pick our beliefs mainly for accuracy, but in fact we have many social motives for picking beliefs. In particular, we use many kinds of beliefs as group affiliation/conformity signals. Some of us also use a few contrarian beliefs to signal cleverness and independence, but our groups have a limited tolerance for such things.

We can sometimes win socially by joining impressive leaders with the right sort of allies who support new fashions contrary to the main current beliefs. If enough others also join these new beliefs, they can become the new main beliefs of our larger group. At that point, those who continue to oppose them become the contrarians, and those who adopted the new fashions as they were gaining momentum gain more relative to latecomers. (Those who adopt fashions too early also tend to lose.)

As we are embarrassed if we seem to pick beliefs for any reason other than accuracy, this sort of new fashion move works better when supported by good accuracy-oriented reasons for changing to the new beliefs. This produces a weak tendency, all else equal, for group-based beliefs to get more accurate over time. However, many of our beliefs are about what actions are effective at achieving the motives we claim to have. And we are often hypocritical about our motives. Because of this, workable fashion moves need not just good reasons to belief claims about the efficacy of actions for stated motives, but also enough of a correspondence between the outcomes of those actions and our actual motives. Many possible fashion moves are unworkable because we don’t actually want to pursue the motives we proclaim.

Smarter people are better able to identify beliefs better supported by reasons, which all else equal makes those beliefs better candidates for new fashions. So those with enough status to start a new fashion may want to listen to smart people in the habit of looking for such candidates. But reasonably smart people who put in the effort are capable of finding a great many places where there are good reasons for picking a non-status-quo belief. And if they also happen to be sincere, they tend to visibly support many of those contrarian beliefs, even in the absence of supporting fashion movements with a decent chance of success. Which results in such high-effort smart sincere people sending bad group affiliation/conformity signals. So while potential leaders of new fashions want to listen to such people, they don’t want to publicly affiliate with them.

I fell into this smart sincere conformity trap long ago. I’ve studied many different areas, and when I’ve discovered an alternate belief that seems to have better supporting reasons than a usual belief, I have usually not hesitated to publicly embrace it. People have told me that it would have been okay for me to publicly embrace one contrarian belief. I might then have had enough overall status to plausibly lead that as a new fashion. But the problem is that I’ve supported many contrarian beliefs, not all derived from a common core principle. And so I’m not a good candidate to be a leader for any of my groups or contrarian views.

Which flags me as a smart sincere person. Good to listen to behind the scenes to get ideas for possible new fashions, but bad to embrace publicly as a loyal group member. I might gain if my contrarian views eventually became winning new fashions, but my early visible adoption of those views probably discourages others from trying to lead them, as they can less claim to have been first with those views.

If the only people who visibly supported contrarian views were smart sincere people who put in high effort, then such views might become known for high accuracy. This wouldn’t necessarily induce most people to adopt them, but it would help. However, there seem to be enough people who visibly adopt contrarian views for others reasons to sufficiently muddy the waters.

If prediction markets were widely adopted, the visible signals of which beliefs were more accurate would tend to embarrass more people into adopting them. Such people do not relish this prospect, as it would have them send bad group affiliation signals. Smart sincere people might relish the prospect, but there are not enough of them to make a difference, and even the few there are mostly don’t seem to relish it enough to work to get prediction markets adopted. Sincerely holding a belief isn’t quite the same as being willing to work for it.

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Industry Via Fashion?

What caused the industrial revolution to appear in Europe, clearly in full swing after 1800, yet never before anywhere else in the world? Since causes precede effects, one simple way to try to answer this question is to ask: What is the earliest thing that happened only in Europe that seems plausibly along a causal path to later produce an industrial revolution? For example, there was the scientific revolution in the mid 1600s, the exploration of new continents in the 1500s, and the printing press in the late 1400s. I just came across a plausible earlier candidate: rapidly changing clothing fashion starting in the mid 1300s:

The sociocultural phenomenon called “fashion,” that is, styles being widely adopted for a limited period of time, was not part of dress in the ancient world. (more)

Fashion in 15th-century Europe was characterized by a series of extremes and extravagances. … It is in this time period that we begin to see fashion take on a temporal aspect. People could now be dated by their clothes, and being in “out of date” clothing became a new social concern. (more)

The craze for change year after year took some time to become really established. … The further back in tome one goes, even in Europe, one is more likely to find the still waters. .. The general rule was changelessness. Until toward the beginning of the twelfth century costumes in Europe remained entirely as they had been in Roman times. … The really big change came in about 1350 with the sudden shortening of men’s costume, which was viewed as scandalous by the old, the prudent, and the defenders of tradition. …After this, ways of dressing because subject to change in Europe. At the same time, whereas the traditional costumer had been much the same all over the continent, the spread of the shorter costume was irregular, subject to resistance and variation, so that eventually national styles of dressing were evolved, all influencing each other to a greater or lesser extent. … So Europe became and remained a patchwork of costumes, until at least the nineteenth century. (Braudel pp.315-7)

The new taste for fashion led to a more general taste for the new, which plausibly promoted innovation, exploration, and science. A plausible partial cause of this new taste for fashion was the sudden big bump in wages caused by the Black Death in the mid 1300s.

Added 6p: Its actually a bit of a puzzle. Why do fast fashion cycles seem so robust in our world, happening in so many areas, at yet they almost never happened in any areas in pre-modern societies? A great many theories have been published to explain fashion cycles, but they all seem to explain too much; I can’t find any to explain the lack of ancient fashion cycles.

Added 8p:  on Twitter points to this discussion of limited fashion in Rome. Fits my story of Rome as culturally an almost industry era.

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Student Status Puzzle

Grad students vary in their research autonomy. Some students are very willing to ask for advice and to listen to it carefully, while others put a high priority on generating and pursuing their own research ideas their own way. This varies with personality, in that more independent people pick more independent strategies. It varies over time, in that students tend to start out deferring at first, and then later in their career switch to making more independent choices. It also varies by topic; students defer more in more technical topics, and where topic choices need more supporting infrastructure, such as with lab experiments. It also varies by level of abstraction; students defer more on how to pursue a project than on which project ideas to pursue.

Many of these variations seem roughly explained by near-far theory, in that people defer more when near, and less when far. These variations seem at least plausibly justifiable, though doubts make sense too. Another kind of variation is more puzzling, however: students at top schools seem more deferential than those at lower rank schools.

Top students expect to get lots of advice, and they take it to heart. In contrast, students at lower ranked schools seem determined to generate their own research ideas from deep in their own “soul”. This happens not only for picking a Ph.D. thesis, but even just for picking topics of research papers assigned in classes. Students seem as averse to getting research topic advice as they would be to advice on with whom to fall in love. Not only are they wary of getting research ideas from professors, they even fear that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true vision. It seems a moral matter to them.

Of course any one student might be correct that they have a special insight into what topics are neglected by their local professors. But the overall pattern here seems perverse; people who hardly understand the basics of a field see themselves as better qualified to identify feasible interesting research topics than those nearby with higher status, and who have been in the fields for decades.

One reason may be overconfidence; students think their profs deserve more to be at a lower rank school than they do, and so estimate a lower quality difference between they and their profs. More data supporting this is that students also seem to accept the relative status ranking of profs at their own school, and so focus most of their attention on the locally top status profs. It is as if each student thinks that they personally have so far been assigned too low of a status, but thinks most others have been correctly assigned.

Another reason may be like our preferring potential to achievement; students try to fulfill the heroic researcher stories they’ve heard, wherein researchers get much credit for embracing ideas early that others come to respect later. Which can make some sense. But these students are trying to do this way too early in their career, and they go way too far with it. Being smarter and knowing more, students at top schools understand this better.

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Why Prefer Potential?

Movies that win Oscars seem to gain more viewers as a result. But it also seems that on the whole people are a lot more eager to watch Oscar nominated movies before the Oscar winners are announced. After the show, people think less about movies and more about other things. Which is odd – a burst of info comes out about which movies are good, and in response people get less interested in watching movies. If getting info about movie quality makes people like movies less, that might explain why movie execs were so keen to kill movie prediction markets. But it still leaves us with the basic puzzle: why don’t people like info on movie quality?

Actually, this is part of a much bigger puzzle. Regarding basketball players, leaders, job candidates, comedians, grad school admissions, restaurant reviews and paintings, we actually prefer to choose people described as having the potential to achieve certain things, compared to people who actually achieve those same things:

When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, compared with references to achievement (e.g., “this person has won an award for his work”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could win an award for his work”) appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions. …

Although participants recognized that the individual with achievement was more objectively impressive on paper, they showed a general preference for potential in their hiring decisions and assessments of future success. …

We ruled out a pro-youth bias, an extremity effect, and believability or credibility perceptions as viable alternative accounts for our findings.  (more; HT Tyler)

Weird! These authors even found this effect for paintings themselves, and not just for painters. They do convincingly argue that a proximate cause is interest and deeper reasoning caused by the uncertainty, but I find it hard to see those as ultimate causes. Why are we more interested in reasoning about potential rather than achievement?

Katja Grace suggested one plausible theory to me: we hope or expect to get a better price on things with good potential, relative to good achievement. This can make some sense of our preference for potential in hiring or grad school admissions; the candidates who have actually achieved may demand more in compensation, or be more likely to reject our offer.

It might also make more sense for paintings and basketball, if we were planning to buy the painting or hire the player. But a simple price effect makes less sense if you are not going to buy the painting or hire the player, but just be a fan. This also makes less sense for movies, comedians, restaurants; few of us ever buy these things whole. We instead pay to rent them, and we don’t get better prices there if we buy potential.

The Oscars suggest a related idea: what we want is social credit for anticipating fashion. That is, we want credit for being early in evaluating things highly that others will later evaluate highly. We want to able to brag (indirectly of course) that we saw quality first. Which is plausible. But it suggests that fashion is a surprisingly big part of our lives – desires to be first in fashion drives a lot more of our behavior that we like to admit.

In fact, this seems a good test probe – let’s test this effect in many more areas of life. Areas where potential matters more than achievement are good candidates for areas where fashion matters a lot to us.

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Fashion Excuses

Imagine a woman who bought expensive new dresses every few months, new dresses that matched the latest dress fashions. But she denied that she personally cared about fashion. Instead, she said:

  • “New dresses are just better. For example, new materials are better.”
  • “My body changes fast, so my dresses must change fast to match.”
  • “Clothes should match culture. It’s not right to wear pre-Ferguson dresses after Ferguson.”
  • “I really like variety; anything even a bit different than before is great.”
  • “As a professional dress-maker, I must keep close track of fashion.”
  • “To bond better with others who track fashion, I do so also.”

Some of these explanations might be true for some people. But overall they are not very believable explanations for why most people track dress fashion. More believable are:

  • “I want people to see I have the time and money to track fashion.”
  • “I want people to stare at my body, and new fashions catch eyes.”
  • “I want people to see that I can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions. This shows my good judgement and social connections.”

While these reasons are more believable, they are not the sort of reasons that people like to admit.

Now consider people who focus more on more recently discussed “fashionable” topics in tech, academia, social trends, policy debates, media, blogs, etc. Such people can have many possible reasons for their focus. But as with the dresses example above, some of these reasons are ugly, being ones we don’t tend to like to admit. Which tends to bias us toward offering other prettier sorts of reasons, to the extent that we can make them seem to fit.

Thus if we notice that we are tending to focus on more recently fashionable topics, we should suspect that we have not fully admitted to ourselves that we actually do so in part because of ugly reasons. Which should lower our estimates of the contribution of prettier reasons. So, compared to what we thought:

  • things aren’t improving as fast,
  • we less need to adapt topics to changes in us or in society,
  • we don’t actually like topic variety as much,
  • we are less producers, and more consumers, and
  • we care less about bonding with others.

Instead you should suspect that you follow topic fashions more because:

  • You want people to see you have the time, education, and smarts needed to track topic fashions.
  • You want people to notice your wit and intelligence, which you display as you track topic fashions.
  • You want people to see that you can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions, to show your good judgement and social connections.

If we are built to hide ugly motives, and substitute pretty ones, we should suspect that our actual motives are uglier than we think.

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Suits Show Signal Scope

Two years ago I posted on the puzzle of yes men. A simple story says bosses evaluate subordinate expertise via the deviation between subordinate and boss opinions. This predicts bosses hiding their opinions as long as possible. Yet real bosses often reveal opinions early, encouraging “yes men.” I suggested that this is because large boss-subordinate opinion deviations make bosses look bad as well as subordinates. While higher bosses who only cared to evaluate this boss would punish them for encouraging yes men, when they themselves seek to look good to still higher bosses, they’d rather allow such encouragement, while pretending otherwise.

A lot of signaling analysis imagines just two parties, the party signaling and the party interpreting the signal. But often signals have a wider scope – signal interpreters often care a lot about how still other parties will interpret their signal interpretation. For example, even if you didn’t wear a suit to a job interview, in the hour long interview you might still convince your interviewer that you’d be a capable productive employee. Yet that interviewer could still be reluctant to hire you, knowing they’d have to explain the hire to others who know you didn’t wear a suit. Interviewers can similarly be reluctant to hire a competent person from a low ranked college, if others might hear of this fact and think less of them.

The interview suit example brings to mind the question: what distinguishes social situations where we wear suits from those where we don’t? We wear suits to funerals, weddings, in court, and when we represent some groups to other groups. At work suits are also worn in sales, management, finance, and law. And a common factor distinguishing these situations seems to be a wide social scope of our signals. We tend to wear suits to events where wider audiences, who don’t know much about us, are more likely to see or hear about and interpret our behavior, especially norm deviations. A suit is a standard respectful clothing with low style variance to minimize the chance of accidentally giving offense.

Our use of language in such “formal” situations of wide signal scope also tends to be designed to be respectful, conservative, and careful, i.e., to minimize the chance of being interpreted negatively by others who don’t know us well. I’ve written before on farming towns being especially effective at encouraging such careful conformist behavior, and on school today teaching students to send the right signals to wider audiences.

What about entertainers, who often wear “wild” clothing yet clearly seek to impress a wide audience that cares about what still others think of their entertainment choices? Since such entertainers are often especially valued for their originality, defiance, or trend foresight, they must often walk a very fine line between looking unimpressive via seeming too conservative, and giving too much offense by being wild in the wrong way. I envy them not.

On average, a wider variance in clothing style is tolerated for women relative to men at high visibility events like weddings or dances. Does this mean men tend to be evaluated by a wider scope than women? Do women care more about what other women think of their man than men care about what other men think of their woman?

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Regulating Cool

The [US FDA] unveiled a plan designed … to shock customers with images of tobacco’s impact: sick smokers exhaling through a tracheotomy hole, struggling for breath in an oxygen mask and lying dead on a table with a long chest scar. Starting next year, cigarette cartons, packs and advertising will feature these and six other graphic warnings, replacing the discreet admonitions that cigarette manufacturers have been required to offer since 1966. …

Some of the images, particularly the warning depicting a diseased mouth, are specifically aimed at dispelling the notion for teens that smoking is cool. “We want kids to understand smoking is gross, not cool, and there’s really nothing pretty about having mouth cancer or, you know, making your baby sick if you smoke,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. “So some of these are very driven to dispelling the notion that somehow this is cool, and makes you cool.” (more)

Pause to consider the logic here. We decide it is not a good idea to let the government ban this product, or to require a doctor’s prescription to consume it. We think everyone should be allowed to consume it if they choose. But, we also decide it is a good idea to let government to decide if this product can seem “cool.” In general, the idea must be that if people see the wrong things as cool, the government can require appearance changes, changes the government guesses will make those overly-cool things seem less cool.

For example, if too many kids see not going to college as cool, well then maybe only college students and graduates should be allowed to wear certain sorts of cool clothing. Or if too many think going to the beach is cool, resulting in too much skin cancer, we could broadcast uncool music at the beach.

The basic question is when should the government ban an activity versus merely discouraging it, and what sort of discouragements it should wield. Discouraging activity via reducing its appearance of “cool” seems to me especially hard for distant slow federal regulators to manage — what things seem “cool” often varies in quite subtle ways over short times and between subcultures. Is there any argument that this sort of discouragement is especially useful, to compensate for such added difficulty?

Actually, I see a fundamental contradiction in the idea of government regulating “cool.” While we have many social processes which tell us about what others might approve or disapprove, the “cool” process seems inherently decentralized, and not to be mediated by authorities. We the masses are supposed to each decide what we think is “cool,” and we are not supposed to accept declarations by teachers, employers, etc. on the subject. Whatever authorities recommend as a good idea, it can only accidentally be “cool.”

“Cool” just doesn’t seem the sort of thing government can actually regulate.

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