Tag Archives: Signaling

A Missing Status Move

People who have status can use it to raise or lower the status of others. But they aren’t supposed to do this arbitrarily. Instead, we have social norms about how status is supposed to change. And our main norm is that status is supposed to track merit. So if you see someone whose status deviates from their merit, you are supposed help correct that deviation, at least when doing so is consistent with other norms.

For example, if you edit an academic journal, you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of high status academics and reject the papers of low status academics. And you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of your allies and reject those of your rivals. You are supposed to instead evaluate the merit of submitted papers, and publish the high merit papers. It is ok to use use status as a heuristic to estimate where merit is likely to lie, such rejecting without review papers that look bad on the surface and come from low status people. But when you have a private signal of merit, as might come from actually reading a paper, you are supposed to act on that signal.

This isn’t to say you should rudely force your private evaluations of merit on audiences who haven’t asked for them. If an audience treats a speaker with  respect, maybe you shouldn’t interrupt that speech to express your low evaluation. But neither should you praise that speaker just to gain favor with the audience, if you’ve been directly asked for your independent evaluation.

If you act to change someone’s status, that person might have a higher or lower status than you, and your act might raise or lower their status. This gives four possible situations. And in three of them, you have pretty plausible selfish motives for your actions. For example, because status is in part relative, any act to lower the status of others can plausibly be seen as selfishly trying to lower others to make more status room to raise you and your allies. Also, a bid to raise the status of someone above you can be seen as an attempt to associate with them, and as flattery, i.e., a gift to them in the hope they will reciprocate and raise your status.

The fourth possibility is where you act to raise the status of someone lower than you. Such an act would plausibly be selfish if that other person were an ally or minion of yours, or a rising star with a plausibly high future status. But selfishness is less plausible if they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime. Especially if you try to raise their status to be above you.

Since trying to raise the status of an unaffiliated person below you is the least selfish looking way to try to change the status of others, we might expect this to be the least common variation observed. But we might also expect some people to go out of their way to do it, and to call attention to their act, in order to signal their devotion to the merit principle of status – the idea that we should all work to help make status better track merit. But I hardly ever hear of this.

So why don’t more people do this? We seem eager enough to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle when we criticize others for flattery, playing favorites, and unfair criticism of rivals.  But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.

Added 29DecInstapundit cited this post.

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Rejection Via Advice

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. So we try to hide this motive, and to pretend that other motives dominate our choices of associates.

This would be easier to do if status were very stable. Then we could take our time setting up plausible excuses for wanting to associate with particular high status folks, and for rejecting association bids by particular low status folks. But in fact status fluctuates, which can force us to act quickly. We want to quickly associate more with folks who rise in status, and to quickly associate less with those who fall in status. But the coincidence in time between their status change and our association change may make our status motives obvious.

Since association seems a good thing in general, trying to associate with anyone seems a “nice” act, requiring fewer excuses. In contrast, weakening an existing association seems less nice. So we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

If different associates offer different advice, then this person with fallen status simply must fail to follow most of that advice. Which then gives all those folks whose advice was not followed an excuse to distance themselves from this failure. And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credibly claim that they have influence over others. Either way, the falling status person loses even more status.

Unless of course the advice followed is actually useful. But what are the chances of that?

Added 27Dec: A similar strategy would be useful if your status were to rise, and you wanted to drop associates in order make room for more higher status associates.

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To Learn, Try

Luke Muehlhauser recently interviewed me as part of his Conversations series. Seeing the lightly edited transcript reminds me of why I usually write instead of posting transcripts. But with a little more cutting, I can find at least one satisfactory quote:

Some people have been brought up in a Popperian paradigm, where there’s a limited scientific method and there’s a limited range of topics it can apply to, and you turn the crank and if it can apply to those topics then you have science and you have truth, and you have something you’ve learned and otherwise everything else is opinion, equally undifferentiated opinion.

I think that’s completely wrong. That is, we have a wide range of intellectual methods, [and] some of those methods work better than others. … But honestly, there are very few topics on which you can’t learn more if you just sit down and work at it. … Of course, just because you can learn about almost anything doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean it’s worth the effort to society or yourself, and it doesn’t mean that there are … easy ways to convince other people that you’ve learned something. … [Also,] it isn’t necessarily well-suited for being an impressiveness display. (more)

If an topic is important enough, just start to study it; if you are smart, then eventually you’ll make progress, and learn important things. Just don’t expect it to be easy to persuade or impress other people with what you’ve learned.

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Joiners v. Middlers

Kelley … traced the success of conservative churches to their ability to attract and retain an active and committed membership, characteristics that he in turn attributed to their strict demands for complete loyalty, unwavering belief, and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle. … [Such] a group limits and thereby increases the cost of non-group activities, such as socializing with members of other churches or pursuing “secular” pastime. …

Seemingly unproductive costs … screen out people whose participation would otherwise be low, while at the same time they increase participation among those who do join. As a consequence, apparently unproductive sacrifices can increase the utility of group members. Efficient religions with perfectly rational members may thus embrace stigma, self-sacrifice, and bizarre behavioral standards. …

When we group religions according to the (rated) stringency of their demands, … [we see that] compared to members of other Protestant denominations, [high-demand] sect members are poorer and less educated, contribute more money and attend more services, hold stronger beliefs, belong to more church-related groups, and are less involved in secular organizations. … Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reveal patterns of interdenominational variation virtually identical to those observed within Protestantism. (more)

I see these tendencies in opinions:

  1. Those with more opinions on some topic categories have more on other categories.
  2. Those with more opinions overall have more extreme opinions on each topic.
  3. Those with more extreme opinions on some topics have more extreme opinions on others.
  4. Those with more extreme opinions are more eager to express their opinions, and vice versa.
  5. Those with more extreme opinions are more eager to join groups and attend their meetings.

(All these could have instead been expressed in terms of less extreme opinions, and “extreme” means noticeably away from the distribution middle.)

One might try to explain these by saying that opinions on a few key topics drive most other opinions. Folks with weak opinions on key topics thus have fewer opinions on other topics, and less interest in expressing opinions or in joining groups to spread the word. Yet there is little evidence that such key opinions exist; most people show little correlation of opinion across topics, or even on the same subject across time.

A more plausible explanation follows the quote above on religion. Religions, ideologies, and other idea-affiliated social groups vary in the level of commitment they ask of members. High commitment groups produce stronger community bonds, and people vary in their taste for such strong bonds. Some folks are “joiners,” with a taste for more strongly bonded groups. Joiners have an induced taste for groups with extreme opinions, and thus an induced taste to have their own more extreme opinions, in order to better fit with stronger groups. Thus joiners tend to let themselves have more opinions and more extreme opinions on many topics.

The opposite group are “middlers,” who prefer to get along mildly well with most everyone, instead of bonding more tightly with a smaller group. Middlers have fewer opinions, fewer extreme opinions, and tend not to join groups that are clearly distinguished by being associated with unusual opinions.

The opinions habits of both joiners and middlers come mainly from social preferences, instead of a preference for belief accuracy. While it isn’t obvious which group is more wrong, it is more obviously wrong to embody the opinion correlations described above.

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Writers Focus On Topic Or Audience?

Writers must attend both to their topic, and to their audience. They must learn things both about the topics on which they write, and about the people who will evaluate their writings. But to which of these do they attend more? For some kinds of writers, idealists say that they mostly attend to their topics, and for other kinds of writers, cynics say that they mostly attend to their audience. Who is more right?

To help answer this question, I suggest a simple test. When a writer solicits commentary on her drafts, does she mostly seek out people who know about the topics on which she writes, or does she mostly seek out people who are or are like or who can predict the audience she must please? Of course there is often a strong correlation between these features, as the audience one must please often knows a lot about the topic. And sometimes the audience is part of the topic. So attending to the audience can indirectly attend to the topic, and vice versa.

Even so, since knowledge of the topic and representation of the audience are not perfectly correlated, if one sees enough writers solicit enough commentary on drafts, one should be able to make out a difference. And in my limited experience, the writers I’ve known seem to focus much more on audience than on topic. They are eager to get comments from folks who know little about the topic but could be influential in getting their writing accepted (or are like or can predict such evaluators), and pay less attention to folks who know a lot about their topic but have little influence (and aren’t much like influential folks).

But what do the rest of you see? True, even if you confirm my observation, we might explain it by saying it is just much easier to learn by reading about a topic than about an audience – so direct feedback is better for learning about audiences. But first, let’s get this datum straight.

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On End Of Period Spending

Last week US federal agencies were in a hurry to spend the last of their annual budget. Agencies that don’t spend all of their budget not only don’t get to save it for next year, next year’s budget will likely be reduced by the unspent amount. And the manager sacked. This last minute burst of spending is usually less carefully considered, and less useful, than other spending. (More about it all here.)

This situation is mildly puzzling. Why is not spending all of a budget such a bad sign? If needs and opportunities vary in time, spending that varies in time seems appropriate. Perhaps incompetent managers who just can’t plan induce more spending fluctuations. But is that really so much more likely than varying needs and opportunities? Some say that spending less than budgeted shows an agency “needs” less overall. But any tendency for agencies that sometimes spend less than budget to be less valuable seems to me much weaker than the tendency of last minute spending to be less valuable. So why aren’t bursts of last minute spending seen as just as bad or worse?

One explanation is that we developed habits of judging organizations and managers based on their budget habits in contexts where it was much harder to observe the time pattern of spending than the total amount spent. We developed the social norm of disapproving of unspent budgets in that context, and have been slow to adapt to a world where the time pattern of spending is visible.

A related explanation is while spending more near period end looks bad, there is a less clear bright line to coordinate on to say which time patterns of spending look bad. So while we each privately know last minute spending bursts look bad, we don’t coordinate to say it together.

Perhaps there are other plausible explanations. But one relatively robust conclusion here I think is that the political process can be pretty terrible at coordinating to react to simple easily visible info. It isn’t enough that we can all know something. We have to all know that we can know and then coordinate to switch new social norms, so that we all know that we all expect us all to actually look at this visible info sometimes, and to react in a certain easily verified way to that info.

Not very encouraging for folks who hope that government will finally sit up and notice other kinds of relevant policy info that it has long neglected.

Added 11Oct:

Spending in the last week of the year is 4.9 times higher than the rest-of-the-year weekly average. … Quality scores for year-end projects are 2.2 to 5.6 times more likely to be below the central value. Allowing agencies to roll over unused funding into the subsequent year can improve efficiency. We calibrate a dynamic model of spending and show that allowing rollover leads to welfare gains of up to 13 percent. … The one federal agency that has the ability to roll over unused funding for I.T. projects does not exhibit a year-end spike in spending or drop-off in quality in this category of spending. (more)

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Dark Pain, Dark Joy

We tend to neglect things we cannot see. We focus on visible (Baryonic) matter in the universe, but there is about twenty times as much dark matter and energy that we know almost nothing about. We focus on brain activity which engages the surrounding world, but about twenty times as much brain energy is used by brains at “rest” and apparently doing nothing.

Pain is probably like this too. For some kinds of pain we are very aware, and make sure others around us are aware too. But for other kinds of pain, we don’t let others know, and are often are in denial to ourselves. There may be lots of dark pain around that we rarely see.

Why do we hide and deny pain? Some pain makes us look bad. We’d look weak to complain of pains that many folks put up with without complaining. And when there are norms about what we should want or not want, we can show norm violations by showing that we deeply want things that we should not, or don’t want things that we should.

Aunt Hilda might really bug you when she visits, but you are supposed to love her. A lack of praise from colleagues might really hurt, but you aren’t supposed to be so self-centered. Some norm-violating pain might not so much make you look bad, as make others feel obligated to visibly disapprove, which would then cause problems.

You might think that dark pain doesn’t matter if we have repressed it from our consciousness, since only conscious pain matters. But consciousness isn’t either or, it is a matter of degree, and repressed pain can infect our mood and feelings in many indirect ways. You might think folks in much pain would seek therapy, so there can’t be many of them. But people seek therapy mainly when they feel dysfunctional; those who still function with lots of pain may just solider on.

If most folks have twenty times as much pain as they show, and live lives of quiet desperation, does this make their lives not worth living? Would it be better if they had never existed? Hardly. In addition to dark pain, there may also be dark joy.

Dark joys could be those that make us look bad, or those that violate norms. We can get illicit joy from being acknowledged as high status, or from submitting to those we think worthy of dominating us. We can get joy from the pain and suffering of our rivals. We can enjoy foods that aren’t good for us, or enjoy just being lazy and neglectful of things to which we are supposed to pay attention.

So does dark joy cancel dark pain, adding up to lives about as worthwhile in the dark as they seem in the light? I just don’t know. But it sure seems an important question. As is the question of which lives around us actually have more net joy over pain. To answer such questions, we’ll need to dig deeper into our self-deceptions, and shine light on things usually dark. Seems a noble quest to me. Just don’t expect people to like you for illuminating the things they keep dark.

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The ‘What If Failure?’ Taboo

Last night I heard a  group of smart pundits and wonks discuss Tyler Cowen’s new book Average Is Over. This book is a sequel to his last, The Great Stagnation, where he argued that wage inequality has greatly increased in rich nations over the last forty years, and especially in the last fifteen years. In this new book, Tyler says this trend will continue for the next twenty years, and offers practical advice on how to personally navigate this new world.

Now while I’ve criticized Tyler for overemphasizing automation as a cause of this increased wage inequality, I agree that most of the trends he discusses are real, and most of his practical advice is sound. But I can also see reasonable grounds to dispute this, and I expected the pundits/wonks to join me in debating that. So I was surprised to see the discussion focus overwhelmingly on if this increased inequality was acceptable. Didn’t Tyler understand that losers might be unhappy, and push the political system toward redistribution and instability?

Tyler quite reasonably said yes this change might not be good overall, and yes there might well be more redistribution, but it wouldn’t change the overall inequality much. He pointed out that most losers might be pretty happy with new ways to enjoy more free time, that our last peak of instability was in the 60′s when inequality was at a minimum, that since we have mostly accepted increased inequality for forty years it is reasonable to expect that to continue for another twenty, and that over history inequality has had only a weak correlation with redistribution and instability.

None of which seemed to dent the pundit/wonk mood. They seemed to hold fast to a simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.

I think we see something similar with other trends framed as negatives, like global warming, bigger orgs, or increased regulation. Once such a trend is framed as an official bad thing which public policy might conceivably reduce, it becomes (mildly) taboo to seem to just accept the change and analyze how to deal with its consequences.

All of which seems bad news for my book, which mostly just accepts the “robots take over, humans lose wages and get sidelined” scenario and analyzes its consequences. No matter how good my reasons for thinking politics will fail to prevent this, many will react as did Nikola Danaylov, with outrage at my hostility toward the poor suffering losers.

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Why Think Of The Children?

When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better. For example, if volunteering at a hospital is good, volunteering at a children’s hospital is better. If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better. If teaching people to paint is good, teaching children to paint is better. If promoting healthy diets is good, promoting healthy diets in kids is better. If protecting people from war is good, protecting kids from war is better. If comforting lonely people is good, comforting lonely kids is better.

Why do most idealistic causes seem better when directed at kids? One explanation is that kids count a lot more in our moral calculus, just as humans count more than horses. But most would deny this I think. Another explanation is that kids just consistently need more of everything. But this just seems wrong. Kids are at the healthiest ages, for example, and so need health help the least. Even so, children health is considered a very noble cause.

For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share. This predicts that doing stuff for kids would seem especially moral for foragers. And maybe we’ve retained such habits.

My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others. So to show off the sort of kindness that your audience cares about, you put a higher priority on kindness to kids.

Of course if you happened to be one of those exceptions really trying to just to make the world a better place, why you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them. You’d want to help anyone but kids. And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …

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On Accidental Altruists

Gordon Tullock:

All of us like to think that we are better, more altruistic, more charitable, than we actually are. But, although we have this desire, we don’t want to pay for it. We are willing to make a sacrifice of perhaps 5 percent of our real income in charitable aid to others. We would like to think of ourselves, however, as making much larger transfers without actually making them. One of the functions of the politician in our society is to meet this demand. (more)

Me:

As an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone. (more)

Let me admit it here and now: I am an accidental altruist, driven more by ambition than empathy. I have sought glory by understanding deep mysteries of quantum physics, disagreement, and human hypocrisy, by foreseeing the next great era after ours, and by inventing and deploying new forms of info aggregation in governance.

I happen to believe that such actions will in fact give an unusually large expected benefit to the world. This is because I believe that in our era a great many things go quite wrong because we do not understand ourselves and our future, and because we aggregate info badly. But, I must admit that I might still pursue similar glories even if they gave little benefit. And perhaps even if they created modest harm.

Now it is not a complete accident that our society offers glory to those who improve our governance or deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. Or that more glory often goes to those whose contributions seem more likely to benefit us all. This is a somewhat functional way for a society to coordinate to improve itself. But the credit here should probably go to the slow process of cultural selection, whereby cultures with more functional institutions win out in competition with other cultures.

I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional. And this makes sense to the extent that people use altruism as a signal of niceness. That is, if you use how nice someone is toward the world as a whole as signal of how nice they would treat you as a friend, spouse, colleague, etc., then it makes sense to put less weight on accidental niceness. We accidental altruists probably tend to be less nice.

But if what you wanted was just to encourage more altruism toward the world, I’d think you’d mostly just want to celebrate people more who actually do more good for the world, without caring that much if they are driven more by glory or empathy. Sure, when faced with an option where they might gain glory by hurting the world, such a person might well choose it. But in areas where pursuing glory tends mostly to help the world, my guess is that the world is helped more if we just praise all good done for the world, intend of focusing our praise mainly on those who do good for the purest of reasons. And I think we all pretty much know this.

So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities.

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