Tag Archives: Signaling

Variety Seems Social

We sometimes complain that we are bored, and so we need to “change up” our products, services, and life habits. We often says this is due to our general preference for variety. But we are actually quite selective in when we want variety. In many areas of our lives we have little variety, and that doesn’t bother us much.

Toothpaste and mouthwash have flavors, but I use the same flavors for months at a time. My breakfasts are mostly alone, and have only minor variations from day to day. Dinners I usually eat with my wife, and we rotate between maybe a dozen different standard dishes. I often eat lunch out with a half dozen colleagues, and we rotate between a half dozen or so places, and in each place I vary what I order. When we host someone who visits from out of town, we go to a wider range of places.

The clothes I sleep in vary very little, and the clothes I wear around the house vary less than the clothes I wear to the office, which vary less than the clothes I wear to special occasions. Under-clothes vary less than more visible clothes. In my home, when we’ve repainted, or bought new furnishings or wall fixings, we tend to change things more often in our more visible rooms. We change the yard the most often, and the living room and entryway the next most often.

Products like cars, couches and refrigerators vary more on the outsides that more people can see than they do on the insides that few people see. We more often rearrange visible things like the placement of furniture compared to less visible things like where clothes are located in our chests or closets, or where dishes sit in kitchen cabinets. Advertising can change the images and attitudes associated with products, even when products don’t physically change, and we have more ads for types of products whose use is more visible to more people.

The general pattern here seems to be that variety is social – we prefer variety more for things that have wider social scopes. It is as if we personally don’t care much for variety, but we need our larger social circles to see that we can afford and tolerate a great deal of variety.

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Max & Miller’s Mate

Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind was very influential on me, and so I spent several posts on his book Spent. He has a new book out, coauthored with Tucker Max, called Mate: become the man women want. It is a how-to book, on how men can attract women.

The book’s voice is less academic and more like a drill sergeant — stern older men giving harsh but needed instructions to younger men. They don’t mind using some crude language, and they don’t argue much for their claims, expecting readers to accept what they say on authority. Fortunately, most of what they say seems to be pretty well-grounded in the literature.

The world view they present has mating quite thoroughly infused with signaling. Pretty much everything you do with actual or potential mates is used as a reliable signal of your hidden features. Makes me wonder in what other self-help books it would be okay to present as strong a signaling view. Perhaps there are career advice books that infuse signaling as throughly into their view of the work world. But I expect people wouldn’t tolerate advice books on school, religion, arts, and charity that are this signaling heavy. Even if the advice was solid.

Though heavy on signaling, Max & Miller don’t consider self-deception. They talk simply about men just looking inside themselves to see what they want, and tell men to take what women seem to want at face value. But perhaps talking about self-deception to their target audience (young men who feel they are failing at mating) would just confuse more than help.

At several points Max & Miller warn their readers that women never evolved general ways to see and appreciate things like wealth and intelligence; women instead evolved to appreciate more specific signals like nice clothes and wit. So don’t go trying to show off your IQ score or bank balance.

They don’t advise women to fix this oversight, but instead advise men to fix how they show off. I suspect the idea is that humans are just more general and flexible on how to achieve their goals than on what exactly are their goals. And I suspect this is right. While one can imagine a creature that just wants “whatever helps me have many descendants”, humans are just not those creatures.

Two suggestive implication follow from this fact. First, if descendants of humans are ever blocked in their growth or expansion into the universe due to their failing to be sufficiently flexible or general, that failing will more likely come from their preferences, rather than their engineering or science. Second, as human incomes fall toward subsistence, our primary preferences for survival trump others, inducing effectively more general and flexible preferences. So subsistence income descendants have a better chance of avoiding generality failures.

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Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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Error Is Not Simple

At her Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia Galef talked to me about signaling as a broad theory of human behavior.

Julia is smart and thoughtful, and fully engaged the idea. Even so, I’m not sure I convinced her. I might have had a better chance if we’d dived quickly into a detailed summaries of related datums. Instead we more talked more abstractly about her concern that signaling seems a complex theory, and shouldn’t we look to simpler theories first. For example, on the datums that we see little correlation between medicine and health, and that people show little interest in private info on medicine effectiveness, Julia said:

Like the fact that humans are bad at probability and are pretty scope insensitive, and don’t really feel the difference between a 5% chance of failure versus an 8% chance of failure. Also the fact that humans are superstitious thinkers, that on some level, it feels like if we don’t think about risks, they can’t hurt us, or something like that. … It feels like that I would have put a significant amount of weigh even in the absence of signaling caring, that people would fail to purchase that useful information.

Yes, the fact that we follow heuristics does predict that our actions deviate from those of perfect rationality agents. It predicts that instead of spending just the right amount on something like medicine, we may spend too much or too little. Similarly, it predicts we might get too much or too little info on medical quality.

But by itself that doesn’t predict that we will spend too much on medicine, and too little on medical quality info. In fact, we see a great many other kinds of areas, such as buying more energy efficient light bulbs, where people seem to spend too little. And we see a great many other areas were people seem too eager to gain and apply quality info; we eagerly consume news media full of info with little practical application.

As I said in the podcast, but perhaps didn’t explain well enough, we are often tempted to explain otherwise-puzzling behaviors in terms of simple error theories; the world is complex so people just can’t get it right. This won’t explain why we tend to do the same things as others who are socially near, but that we often like to explain as social copying and conformity; we try to do what others do so we won’t look weird, and maybe others know something.

But even conformity, by itself, won’t explain the particular choices that a group of socially adjacent people make. It doesn’t predict that elderly women in Miami tend to spend too much on medicine, for example. It is these patterns across space, time, group, industry, etc. that I try to explain via signaling. For example, relative to other products and services, people have consistently spent too much on medicine all through history, especially in rich societies, and for women and the elderly.

I’ve offered a signaling story to try to simultaneously explain these and many other details, and yes it takes a few pages to explain. That may sound more complex than “its all just random mistakes”, but to explain any specific dataset of choices, that basic error story must be augmented with a great many specific ad hoc hypotheses of the form “and in this case, the particular mistake these people tend to make happens to be this.”

The combination of “its just error” and all those specific hypotheses is what makes that total hypothesis actually a lot more complex and a priori unlikely than the sorts of signaling stories that I offer. Which is why I’d say such signaling hypotheses are favored more by the data, at least when they fit reasonably well and are generated by a relatively small set of core hypotheses.

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Why Happiness?

You can’t be happier than the person you’re with. I’ve tried. It doesn’t go over well. Scott Adams

Why did evolution makes us (sometimes) happy? One standard story, and in fact the only story I’ve found so far in a quick search, is that happiness is just our mind’s way of telling us what we want. We consciously want to be happy, and so to direct our behavior our subconscious tells us that we are happy doing what it wants us to do.

But this can’t be the whole story. Not only are we well aware of wanting as a different feeling from happiness, we know of many systematic differences between our wants and our happiness. For example, even though we expect these choices to make us less happy, we expect we’ll pick money over sleep, shorter commutes, leisure time, friends, family, and legacy. We’ll pick school over a social life, and a career-helping internship over interesting one. And we’ll pick attending a favorite musician’s concert over a friend’s birthday party or reporting a crime. (Source) Two other fascinating cases:

To reconcile the intuition that Americans today are better off than in the past with the finding that average SWB [= subjective well-being] has remained flat in the U.S. over the past decades, we ask respondents to rank being born in 1950 versus being born in 1990 in both choice and SWB questions. Although our respondents overwhelmingly favor being born in 1990 in both questions, more choose 1990 despite believing that they would be happier in 1950 than the reverse. …

To reconcile the intuition that expanding political and economic freedoms for women have made women better off with the finding that average SWB among women has declined in the U.S. since the 1970s, both absolutely and relative to men, we ask respondents to rank living in a world with or without these expanded freedoms for women. Again, significantly more respondents choose a world with these expanded freedoms for women in spite of believing that a world without them would make them happier than the reverse. (more)

These all seem to me reasonably consistent with our thinking we’ll be happier doing what others approve, and what connects us to them. Our visible happiness functions in part to convince our associates that that we care about their approval and contact. This fits with smiles, taken as an indicator of happiness, also being seen as signs of submissiveness – athletes and runway models rarely smile in photos. (More on smiles)

This seems similar to a plausible theory of pain, that pain is in part a call for help from associates:

Certain types of [human] pain are not associated with any physiological damage, and studies that show the presence of others can affect reported sensations of pain. Labour pain is another good example. Across all human cultures, there are nearly always helpers, from relatives to medical professionals, who attend births. … By contrast, among our primate relatives, solitary birth is the norm. Human childbirth appears to be uniquely painful among members of the animal kingdom. … I suggest that protracted labour pains make us show distress and recruit help from others well in advance of the birth – a strategy that offers a survival advantage. (more)

Added 6:30p: Calls for people to be happy, and to teach them what leads to happiness, can be seen as calls from associates to attach yourself more strongly to them and conform more strongly to their norms and pressures.

Added 12May: Bryan Caplan correctly points out that in the last two cases above, of being born earlier and women’s rights, it is choices that are in the direction of doing what others approve and connecting to them. Happiness goes against those things there. Bryan also suggests that we tend to choose money and status over happiness because of social pressure to work hard and succeed. In this view athletes and runway models don’t smile as a signal of having sacrificed happiness for status. This all makes sense; it seems I was just confused.

But Bryan’s account raises the question of why happiness doesn’t encode our value for status and social approval, as it encodes so many other values. Bryan suggests that this is because “foragers tend to act on impulses that farmers strive to suppress.” Somehow the transition to farming changed the values we use to chose actions in a way that wasn’t reflected in the processes by which our minds compute happiness. But surely foragers had to deal with social pressures and status; those issues arose long before farmers. So there seems to be more to this story that we don’t yet understand.

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What Is Signaling?

Noah Smith complains about people like me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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