Tag Archives: Signaling

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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Placebos Show Care

I’ve suggested that the main function of medicine is to show that we care. I’ve suggested that we spend a lot on medicine to signal our care, and that this can explain the placebo effect, wherein the mere appearance of care increases health. Some apparently confirming evidence:

Parkinson’s Disease patients secretly treated with a placebo instead of their regular medication performed better when told they were receiving a more expensive version of the “drug,” … While most people think of a placebo as a sugar pill that replaces a real medication, the impact more commonly comes from “the engagement between patients and clinicians,” in particular the way doctors create expectations that their efforts will help, Kaptchuk said. That includes a good relationship between doctor and patient; certain medical rituals, such as taking blood pressure and a medical history; and the “color, shape, number and cost” of the placebo drug. (more; the study)

Now this study is hardly definitive – it had only twelve subjects, and the placebo difference is only significant at the 3.4% level. But I guess that it will be verified in larger trials.

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Is `Libby’ A Slur?

I recently used the the word “Jews” in a draft, and someone suggested that might be offensive, and that I should instead used something like “people of Jewish descent.” I asked around, and while most people didn’t see any offense, at least a few thought that a few others would take offense.

I suspect people are using a simple signaling heuristic here. When people insult or denigrate something they tend to do so with short familiar easy to say and understand words and phrases. So when other people want to signal that they do not intend to insult or denigrate something, they instead choose long awkward words and phrases.

Also, it is probably in fact easier for listeners to unthinkingly apply stereotypes when they hear short easy words and phrases. There is less time for thought, and less thought is needed. In contrast, long awkward words and phrases directly invite more conscious reflection on what is being said. In addition, using a noun rather than an adjective to indicate a feature may invite listeners to see that feature as more essential.

This fits with many racial and ethnic slurs and their “politically correct” alternatives. For example, “African american” is less short and easy than “black” or “negro” (which is just “black” in Spanish). And “a Chinese person” is apparently less likely to offend than “a Chinese”.

I’ve been involved in several communities specialized in concepts associated with these relatively easy words: “nanotech”, “transhuman”, and “singularity.” When their concept got popular and used much by others, insiders lost control over their words’ public associations. In each case, insiders then began media campaigns to try to substitute another new phrase.

The new phrases were: “atomically-precise manufacturing”, “humanity plus” and “artificial intelligence risk”. In each case, the new approved phrases were longer and more awkward, and so less likely to be used by a wider public. But even if these new phrases never caught on with outsiders, insiders could still use them to signal loyalty to these groups.

We can also note the related phenomena of people preferring long awkward titles for their jobs, like “Vice President of Social Advertising Media and Sales”. And academics often prefer long awkward names for academic theories and fields, like “construal level theory” instead of “near/far effects”.

While I understand this overall urge, I feel inclined to usually resist it. After all, the more groups for which we use long awkward phrases to show that we are not insulting them, the longer and more awkward our communication becomes. And if we are not willing to treat all groups this way, then our signals become relative – we must end up showing that we care more about not insulting some groups than we do about other groups.

Libertarians may think themselves immune from this. But I’d guess that if libertarians were often called “libbies”, and if that word were often used within insults and criticisms of libertarians, then libertarians might well get in the habit of saying that they felt insulted by that word, saying in effect “You insult us if you do not show your respect for us by using all five syllables of our official name.”

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Ritual Instinct

Humans have an instinct that is specific to arbitrary rituals, which we see as signaling group loyalty:

Show a child how to perform some action that they haven’t seen before, and they will faithfully replicate not only the steps required to achieve the goal, but also superfluous ones. Why they do this is a puzzle, especially as other animals do not. … What if children can identify actions as causally opaque? If so, perhaps their brains see them as a cue to switch from normal reasoning to a “ritual stance” in which they interpret the behaviour of others as social signals, and go out of their way to copy them. … Children copy apparently aimless sequences of actions more faithfully than sequences that move towards an obvious goal. …

Group one saw one person doing the actions, and watched the video twice. Group two saw videos of two people performing the same manipulation in succession. Group three watched two people performing the actions in synchrony. And group four saw the synchronised demonstration video twice. The accuracy with which the children subsequently copied the nonsensical actions increased progressively from groups one to four. … The children who had seen the spectre of ostracism copied more accurately, and the effect was especially marked when ritualistic actions were involved. … This effect is even stronger when kids are ostracised from a group with which they identify. …

Members of two groups spent 7 minutes making necklaces in synchrony with other group members, following a script such as “first we add a green heart, then an orange square”, and so on. Another two groups were simply given beads and allowed to spend 7 minutes stringing them up however they wished. … Those who had worked together ritualistically reported a greater sense of connection to their group than those who made freestyle necklaces. (more)

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On Exposing Hypocrisy

Imagine that you are a kid, and that you recently acquired a new friend who likes to come over to your house to play. You’ve started to notice that he pays a lot of attention to your sister when he visits, that he likes to visit when she is home, that he likes to play in the house near where she is at the time. You suspect that he has a crush on your sister, and that is why he recently became your friend.

This is a case of hypocrisy, where X is less about the Y that it seems about, but is instead more about Z. Here X is your new friendship, Y is his liking to spent time with you, and Z is his wanting to get closer to your sister. Of course Y is probably true to some extent, though not as much as he’d led you to believe.

Now consider some possible responses to this situation:

  1. Nothing: Do and say nothing; pretend you don’t notice.
  2. Private support: tell him privately about your suspicions, but make sure he understands that you will fully support his efforts, and that you don’t hold any grudge.
  3. Private confrontation: tell him privately about your suspicions. Act mildly offended.
  4. Public exposure: speak loud and clearly, in front of all his friends, as well as your sister, giving evidence of his hypocrisy. Act deeply offended.
  5. Indirect private confrontation: have a mutual friend tell him that his behavior seems suspicious. This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. But they were wondering, that’s all.

What if you like this person, and so want him to act more like a real friend. Which of the above responses are most likely to turn his hypocrisy, in pretending to do Y while really doing Z, into sincerity, i.e., really doing mainly Y?

In this case #4 is probably the absolute worst approach, and #3 probably isn’t that much better. #2 may usually have good outcomes, but even that risks him feeling embarrassed and avoiding you. #5 is a little safer, but even that could spook him. I’d say #1 is probably the safest: just do nothing.

Consider this as a metaphor for exposing hypocrisy more generally. Sometimes exposing hypocrisy, or confronting the hypocrites, can shame them into actually doing what they say they are doing. But at other times it scares them away, so that they do even less of what they said they were doing.

For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features. If this hypocrisy were made clear, would people actually learn more, or would they switch to other ways to meet mates and signal features? People also pretend to give to charity because they want to help, but more plausibly they want to bond with associates and to signal their gentle natures. If their hypocrisy were made more visible, would they try to be more effective at helping with their charity, or would they switch to other ways to associate and signal gentleness?

Consider this a partial answer to Ryan Carey’s request for criticism of effective altruism. A community associated with that label says it wants to promote charity as helping, and it points out how common charity patterns often fall far short of that goal. And if main cause of falling short were ignorance or laziness, this should induce a lot more helping. But if the main cause is instead hypocrisy, then what they are mainly doing is exposing hypocrisy.

And yes, for some people exposing their hypocrisy will shame them into more effectively doing what they had been pretending to do. But for others it may embarrass them into doing less. Maybe they will be more forthright about bonding and showing gentleness in other ways. I don’t actually know which it will be on net. But I do know that we should study hypocrisy more carefully, in order to better position ourselves to answer such questions.

Added 8a: People vary in their gentleness both via immediate system one reactions, and via more considered system two reactions. If people are more interested in signaling their system one gentleness, and if effective charity choices are those that look better to system two, then effective choices can be in conflict with their signaling desires.

For example, in the standard trolley problem people say they would divert the trolley to kill one person on the tracks to save five on other tracks, but would not push one person off a footbridge to achieve the same savings. Pressuring people to admit that pushing in the trolley problem is effective altruism is getting them to resist their system one inclinations, and if they succeed at that they may look less good to associates in terms of system one gentleness.

Added 10a: Sebastian Nickel reminds me of this study showing:

Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving.

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Show Outside Critics

Worried that you might be wrong? That you might be wrong because you are biased? You might think that your best response is to study different kinds of biases, so that you can try to correct your own biases. And yes, that can help sometimes. But overall, I don’t think it helps much. The vast depths of your mind are quite capable of tricking you into thinking you are overcoming biases, when you are doing no such thing.

A more robust solution is to seek motivated and capable critics. Real humans who have incentives to find and explain flaws in your analysis. They can more reliably find your biases, and force you to hear about them. This is of course an ancient idea. The Vatican has long had “devil’s advocates”, and many other organizations regularly assign critics to evaluate presented arguments. For example, academic conferences often assign “discussants” tasked with finding flaws in talks, and journals assign referees to criticize submitted papers.

Since this idea is so ancient, you might think that the people who talk the most about trying to overcoming bias would apply this principle far more often than do others. But from what I’ve seen, you’d be wrong.

Oh, almost everyone circulates drafts among close associates for friendly criticism. But that criticism is mostly directed toward avoiding looking bad when they present to a wider audience. Which isn’t at all the same as making sure they are right. That is, friendly local criticism isn’t usually directed at trying to show a wider audience flaws in your arguments. If your audience won’t notice a flaw, your friendly local critics have little incentive to point it out.

If your audience cared about flaws in your arguments, they’d prefer to hear you in a context where they can expect to hear motivated capable outside critics point out flaws. Not your close associates or friends, or people from shared institutions via which you could punish them for overly effective criticism. Then when the flaws your audience hears about are weak, they can have more confidence that your arguments are strong.

And if even if your audience only cared about the appearance of caring about flaws in your argument, they’d still want to hear you matched with apparently motivated capable critics. Or at least have their associates hear that such matching happens. Critics would likely be less motivated and capable in this case, but at least there’d be a fig leaf that looked like good outside critics matched with your presented arguments.

So when you see people presenting arguments without even a fig leaf of the appearance of outside critics being matched with presented arguments, you can reasonably conclude that this audience doesn’t really care much about appearing to care about hidden flaws in your argument. And if you are the one presenting arguments, and if you didn’t try to ensure available critics, then others can reasonably conclude that you don’t care much about persuading your audience that your argument lacks hidden flaws.

Now often this criticism approach is often muddled by the question of which kinds of critics are in fact motivated and capable. So often “critics” are used who don’t have in fact have much relevant expertise, or who have incentives that are opaque to the audience. And prediction markets can be seen as a robust solution to this problem. Every bet is an interaction between two sides who each implicitly criticize the other. Both are clearly motivated to be accurate, and have clear incentives to only participate if they are capable. Of course prediction market critics typically don’t give as much detail to explain the flaws they see. But they do make clear that they see a flaw.

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Forged By Status

To encourage people to associate with us, we want to seem principled, with a stable permanent nature. We want this nature to seem attractive and to fit with our community’s social norms, we want it to be associated with high status, and we want it to fit our personal situation and preferences. However, community norms and status rankings often change, and we often participate in overlapping communities with different norms. So we need to be able to change our nature and norms, to adapt to changing conditions. Yet we also want such changes to feel authentic, and not consciously or overtly done just to accommodate neighbors. How can we accomplish all these goals at once?

One simple strategy is to have a stable personality, but to sometimes let impressive high status people move us to change that personality. When we hear someone express an opinion, directly or indirectly, we evaluate that person and their expression for impressiveness and status. The higher our evaluation, the more receptive we let ourselves be to the emotions they express, and the more plastic we become at that moment to changing our “permanent” nature in response.

In this way we can limit our changes, yet still track changing norms and status. We become like metal that is forged by heat; we usually have a solid reliable shape, but we let ourselves be reshaped by the rare heat of great impressiveness. Some recent evidence suggests that we in fact do this:

In one experiment, … psychologists … randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read .. [a] short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court. The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading. … It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic … they found it just as interesting.)

Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits. …. Then, after … were again given the personality test. … The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the … story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. …

Another experiment … asked participants to read one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. Essays … average length, ease of reading and interest to readers were the same as those of the stories. … We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic. (more)

Fluctuations in personality comparable to those that occurred in reading artistic literature have been found when people listened to music (Djikic, 2011) and looked at pieces of visual art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2012). These results support the hypothesis that literature shares with other arts an effect of introducing a perturbation to personality, which can sometimes be a precursor to a more permanent personality change. (more)

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Why Erase Childhood?

In our society, adults must live with their records. We collect records on sport, contests, web-forums, marriage, school, jobs, crimes, debt, taxes, etc. Such records help others who want to interact with those adults, by helping them guess the consequences of such choices. Such records also help those who have good-looking records.

Of course, such records also hurt those with bad-looking records. Sometimes that hurt is unfair, as when a record looks bad due to a random event outside their control. But overall we judge it good to let people see records; we expect observers to usually take reasonable account of the possibility of noisy record signals.

For many kinds of records, we give the person who is the subject of the records the option to not reveal them. But we also let others draw inferences from such a lack of visible records. If a job applicant doesn’t show you a record of having graduated from college, you are allowed to infer that they probably didn’t go to college.

For children, however, we tend to go out of our way to prevent the collection and sharing of records. We often expunge childhood criminal records, and we make sure public schools don’t save or share records of grades and misconduct. Even though childhood behavior is often quite predictive of adult behavior. For example a larger literature (e.g., here, here) finds childhood misbehavior to be one of our best predictors of adult criminal behavior.

I don’t see an obvious rationale for this. The usual rationale for restricting kid behaviors is that the kids are irrational. But here we have a restriction on adults reacting to this person as an adult. The sorts of irrationalities someone displays as a kid are quite plausibly predictive of the irrationalities they might display as an adult. And I see no reason why adults should be especially irrational in interpreting such signs. We were all kids once, after all.

Yes kids who behave badly as kids will look worse as adults, and have worse life options and outcomes as a result. But we are mostly fine with this happening to adults due to their adult actions. What is so differently problematic about such things resulting from childhood actions?

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The Rosy View Bias

How much does merit contribute to success? A rosy view is that success is mostly due to merit, while a dark view is that success is mostly not due to merit, but instead due to what we see as illicit factors, such as luck, looks, wit, wealth, race, gender, politics, etc.

Over a lifetime people gain data on the relation between success and merit. And one data point stands out most in their minds: the relation between their own success and merit. Since most people see themselves as being pretty meritorious, the sign of this data point depends mostly on their personal success. Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are only weakly related.

In addition, successful people tend to know other successful people, and people tend to think their associates are also meritorious. So the other data points around people tend to confirm their own data point. The net result is that older people tend to have more data on the relation between merit and success, with successful people seeing a rosy view, and unsuccessful people seeing a darker view.

Since the distribution of success is quite skewed, most older people see a darker view. However, that dark majority doesn’t get heard much. Most of the people who are heard, such as reporters, authors, artists, professors, managers, etc., see rosy views, as they tend to be both older and successful.

Also, most people prefer to look successful, and so they prefer to look like they’ve seen a rosy view. Even if they haven’t, at least not yet. And a good way to look like you believe something is to actually believe it, even if your evidence doesn’t support it so much.

In sum, we expect the people we hear to be biased toward saying and believing a rosy view of the relation between success and merit. Of course that might be good for the world, if a realistic view would lead to too much envy and conflict. But it would still be a biased view.

Added 11p: Of course if they can find a way to rationalize it, we expect everyone to be inclined to favor a view where merit is a big cause of people reaching up to the success level where they are, but non-merit is a relatively bigger cause of people reaching the higher levels above them. When there are many success ladders we expect people to see merit as a big cause of success on their ladder (up to their point), but as less a cause of success on other ladders.

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