Tag Archives: Signaling

Bets As Loyalty Signals

Why do men give women engagement rings? A standard story is that a ring shows commitment; by paying a cost that one would lose if the marriage fails, one shows that one places a high value on the marriage.

However, as a signal the ring has two problems. On the one hand, if the ring is easy to sell for its purchase price, then it detracts from the woman’s signal of the value she places on the marriage. Accepting a ring makes her look mercenary. On the other hand, if the ring can’t be sold for near its purchase price, and if the woman values the ring itself at less than its price, then the couple destroys value in order to allow the signal.

These are common problems with loyalty signals – either value is destroyed, or stronger signals on one side weakens signals from other sides. Value-destroying loyalty signals are very common in couples, clubs, churches, firms, professions, and nations. For example, we might give up poker nights for a spouse, pork food for a religion, casual clothes to be a manager, or old-world customs for a new nation.

A few days ago I had an idea for a more efficient loyalty signal. Imagine that when he was twenty a man made a $5000 bet that he would never marry before the age of fifty. Then when he is thirty-five and wants to marry, he can send a strong signal of his desire to marry just by his willingness to lose this bet. Since the bet is lost to a third party, it doesn’t hinder the bride’s ability to signal her loyalty. And assuming the bet is made at fair odds, the lost bets are on average paid to versions of this man in alternative scenarios where he doesn’t marry by fifty. So he retains the value, which is not destroyed.

Today this approach probably suffers from being weird, so doing this would also send an unwelcome signal of weirdness. But it is only a signal of one’s weirdness when one made the bet – maybe one can credibly claim to be less weird later when marrying. And the bet would remain potent as a signal of devotion.

There are many related applications. For example, a young person who bet that they would never join a religion might later credibly signal their devotion to that religion, and perhaps avoid having to eat and dress funny to show such devotion. Also, someone who bet that they would never change countries might signal their loyalty when they moved to a new nation. To let my future self signal his devotion to his political party, perhaps I should bet today that I’ll never join a political party. Do I have any takers?

Added 20July: Of course the need to lose a bet to get married would discourage some from getting married. But the same harm happens for any expectation of needing to send a loyalty signal if one gets married. This effect isn’t particular to bets as loyalty signals; it happens for all kinds of loyalty signals.

Mechanically one way to implement marriage bets as loyalty signals would be for parents to buy their sons male spinster insurance, which pays money to the son when he is fifty if he never marries, and otherwise gives him a nice visible cheap pin/brooch when he gets married. His new wife can wear the pin to brag about his devotion. The pin might be color coded to indicate how much money he sacrificed.

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Status Bid Coalitions

Katja Grace and I talked a bit recently about a possible “big scope status bias”, and she wrote a post on one of the ideas we discussed:

I’m not convinced that more abstract things are more statusful in general, or that it would be surprising if such a trend were fairly imprecise. However supposing they are and it was, here is an explanation for why some especially abstract things seem silly. … Abstract rethinking of common concepts is easily mistaken for questioning basic assumptions. Abstract questioning of basic assumptions really is questioning basic assumptions. And questioning basic assumptions has a strong surface resemblance to not knowing about basic truths, or at least not having a strong gut feeling that they are true. (more)

Yes, people who question basic assumptions can be framed as silly for not understanding basic things. But I think a similarly strong effect is that people often just don’t like reconsidering basic assumptions. Once you’ve used certain assumptions and matching concepts for a long time, your thinking comes to rely on them. Not only would you lose a lot of that investment if your assumption was wrong, but it becomes mentally hard to even consider the possibility. A third strong effect, I think, is one I mentioned in my previous post:

It is harder to reason well about big scope choices, which is part of why it impresses to do that well. … Some topics will be so abstract that very few can deal well with them, or even evaluate the dealings of others. So those few people will tend more to be on their own, and not get much praise from others. (more)

Reasoning abstractly in a way that seems to question basic assumptions is often seen as a bid for status. As with most such bids, observers have to decide if to accept or oppose that bid. Observers are tempted to reject it, not only because they don’t like others to rise in status, but also because they don’t like to have to reconsider basic assumptions, and because it is so tempting to reject by ridicule, via insinuating that the bidder is stupid and silly.

But while these temptations can be strong, observers must also consider coalition politics – how many allies how strong can the bidder bring into play. If a high status field like physics brings broad unified support to the abstract reasoning, people will mostly back down and accept the abstract status bid. But if only a few supporters can be found with only modest status, the temptation to ridicule is likely to win out. Philosophers are often on the borderline here, with enough status to intimidate many, but not enough to intimidate high status folks like physicists, who are more tempted to ridicule them.

Added 10a: This helps explain the puzzle I engaged in Too Much Consulting? When managers want to push changes that seem to question basic firm assumptions, they need especially strong high status support to resist the ridicule response. So they hire prestigious management consultants.

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Mocking As Respect

How can you tell which are the dominant ethnicities, professions, or genders? One easy test: in our society, dominant groups are ones that people are allowed to insult and lampoon. For example, you can get in a lot more trouble for making negative general statements about blacks or women than about whites or men. Maybe this fact can comfort dad today, as he gets his annual card mocking his role as father:

There’s a good chance if you receive — or give — a Father’s Day card this weekend, Dad will be portrayed as a farting, beer-obsessed, tool-challenged buffoon who would rather hog the TV remote, go fishing or play golf than be with the kids. Such cards are top sellers among the 87 million Father’s Day cards that will be given this year. …

About 25 percent of Hallmark’s Father’s Day cards are in the humor category, compared with 15 percent of Mother’s Day cards. Men also appreciate punch-in-the-arm, even immature, humor more than women do, companies say. …. You try to give mom a fart joke for Mother’s Day, it probably won’t fly very well, but with dad you can. …

Whyatt, the cartoonist, … said. “I’m sure there’s a way to make the new image of fathers funny as well, but it would be a shame to lose making dad the butt of the joke. Even though we’re all changing, hopefully we’ll still be able to take a joke.” (more)

Dads, the fact that you let them mock you, and show you can take a joke, is a good counter-signaling signal that you are loved and respected. Enjoy.

Note that while folks are eager to cut many public signals of which groups dominate, there is little push to cut this sort of signal.

Added 4p: I should note that in simple models counter-signaling there are three types, and the same signal is sent by the high and low type, which is a different signal from the mid type. So yes there are also low status groups today, like animals, which one is allowed to lampoon.

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How Deep The Rabbit Hole?

You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. The Matrix

A new article in Evolutionary Psychology by Andrew Gersick and Robert Kurzban details the many ways that one can credibly show good features via covert signals. Covert signals are more subtle and complicated, and so signal intelligence and social savvy. By the details of your covert signals, you can show your awareness of details of social situations, of the risks and attitudes of the people to whom you signal, of the size and chances of the punishments you may suffer if your covert signals are uncovered, and of how much you are willing to risk such punishment:

Flirting is a class of courtship signaling that conveys the signaler’s intentions and desirability to the intended receiver while minimizing the costs that would accompany an overt courtship attempt. … Individuals who are courting [in this way] should vary the intensity of their signals to suit the level of risk attached to the particular social configuration, and receivers may assess this flexible matching of signal to context as an indicator of the signaler’s broader behavioral flexibility and social intelligence. …

Simply producing or interpreting implicature is challenging cognitive work. Moreover, the complexity—and consequent showiness—of implicature is clear in its essential structure. Whereas direct speech merely reports informational content, implicature manipulates meaning by playing that content off of the implicit knowledge shared between speaker and audience.

General intelligence is not the only quality one can demonstrate through indirect speech. Signaling subtly in appropriate situations can convey the signaler’s social awareness and adeptness, his cognizance of the potential costs attached to the sort of transaction he is proposing, his ability to skillfully reduce those costs, and, therefore, his worthiness as a partner. A discretely offered bribe not only opens a negotiation but shows that the aspiring briber knows how to avoid attracting attention. By the same token, the suitor who subtly approaches a woman with a jealous boyfriend does more than simply protect himself from physical assault. He shows his sensitivity to his target’s circumstances. … A slightly more transparent sexual signal might be optimal if the suitor wants to convey not only that he has the social intelligence to be moderately subtle, but also the implicit physical confidence to take on the risk of a fight with the boyfriend. ..

Courtship signals that are marked by … poor quality … [include] the highly overt, socially inappropriate signaling that we call boorishness (e.g., making crude advances to a friend’s partner). Another sort of bad match … is signaling weakly when the risks attached to a sexual advance are quite low, as in the shy mumbling of a high-schooler who knows his current companion is interested in him but still can’t manage to make a move. … A lowly waiter might feel empowered to flirt more openly with a rich customer’s wife if he were younger, taller and better looking than the husband. Calibrating one’s signal-intensity to the right pitch of flirtatiousness may require a blend of social awareness, behavioral flexibility. (more)

Note the reason for covertness here is not peculiar to mating – there are many other situations where a wider audience may object to or punish one for cooperating with particular others in particular ways. The more partially-enforced social norms that a society has, the more reasons its members have to develop ways to covertly coordinate to evade those norms.

Note also that while it so happens that we are often consciously aware that we are flirting, or that others are flirting with us, this need not always apply. We can often more credibly and sincerely deny our covert signals, and prevent their detection, when we are not consciously aware of such signals. Yes, doing such things unconsciously may cost us some in how carefully we can adapt those signals to the details of particular situations, if conscious minds are useful in such adaptation. Even so, being unconscious of covert signals may often be a net gain.

And here is where madness lies — where the rabbit hole you’ve fallen down opens into a vast black hole. Because once you realize that your unconscious mind might be doing a lot of covert talking with the unconscious minds of others, you have to realize that you may not actually know that much about what you are doing much of the time, or why you are doing it. Your conscious reasoning about what you should do, based on what you know about your conscious motivations and acts, could be quite flawed.

So the more that your conscious reasoning actually influences your actions, instead of being after the fact rationalizations, the more important it becomes to get some handle on this. Just how often are we how wrong about what we are doing and why? How could we find this out, and do we really want to?

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Big Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Talk About Race

A Post OpEd by Jonathan Capehart:

That honest conversation about race everyone wants? We can’t handle it. … We say we want the conversation. But we just can’t handle it — especially in public. … [In 2008,] I would have wanted to hear a white Southern Republican such as Barbour give an honest speech on race from his perspective, in an effort to explain and heal. It might have proved uncomfortable, but we would have listened, learned and moved forward with the knowledge gained. But I also understand Barbour’s reticence. To deliver such a speech, with power and nuance, would mean putting one’s livelihood — in politics and business — on the line. It would require a bravery and selflessness few could muster. (more)

Capehart dares us to prove him wrong. So let me try. (At least at a meta-level.)

Today academia has a pecking order. For example, math is high while education studies are low. Academics sometimes argue about this order, mentioning arguments for and against each discipline. Sometimes people invoke misleading stereotypes, and sometimes others correct them. While misconceptions remain common, we probably still have more accurate beliefs on how disciplines differ than we would if these conversations were forbidden.

Long ago when issues of race and gender equality were first raised in TV shows, I remember (as a kid) seeing characters argue about the differing features of various races, genders, etc. Claims were made, rebutted, etc. This helped I think. But today it is never ok, even in private, to describe any negative tendencies of “low” races, nor any positive tendencies of “high” races, at least if that suggests others have those tendencies less. And this basically bans the sort of useful talk that academics now have about their pecking order. A similar ban holds for much of gender talk.

The reason that such talk is useful is that it is generally harder to evaluate behaviors and people outside of the cultures and roles that you know best. In the cultures I know best, such as academic economics or research software, I feel at least modestly competent to evaluate behaviors and people, especially for people who take on the same roles that I have taken.

Yes, even there people vary greatly in personality, smarts, experience, etc., but I have collected many standard tricks for discerning such things. The fact that folks from another race or gender might have somewhat different means or variances doesn’t matter that much, as long as my standard tricks work similarly for them. It hasn’t seemed hard for me to deal fairly with folks from other races and genders, as long they stayed close to roles I knew well, centered within cultures I knew well.

However, the further that people and contexts get from the cultures and roles that I know best, the less reliable are my standard tricks. People from other races and genders often have experienced substantially differing cultures and roles than the ones I’m most familiar with. So to make sense of behavior in such cases, I have to fall back somewhat onto beliefs about which of my usual tricks degrade how fast as various parameters change with cultures and roles. That is, I must rely on stereotypes about what tends to vary by cultures and roles, and it is too easy to be wrong about those. In particular I must rely on my best guesses about how many things differ for the different cultures and roles associated with different races and genders.

Sometimes people say you shouldn’t use stereotypes, but should instead just “judge each person and situation by itself.” But you just can’t do that if you don’t know how to interpret what you see. Since behaviors and features change with cultures, you need some sense of the cultural origins of what you see in order to interpret it. And since we all can’t immerse ourselves in depth in many different cultures, we need to talk to each other to share what we’ve seen.

If academics weren’t allowed to say bad things about the culture of education studies, nor good things about the culture of math, I expect we’d mostly just stop talking how these cultures differ. But we’d be pretty sure that there are differences, and that all cultures have both good and bad aspects. So we’d have stereotypes, and use them when doing so wasn’t overly visible. Similarly, our effective ban on race and gender talk doesn’t stop us from believing that many important things change with the differing cultures and roles that have correlated with races and genders. Nor does it keep us from often acting on such beliefs.

Our choice to ban saying bad things about “low” races and genders, or saying good things about “high” races and genders, was clearly a costly signal, and it did send the message “we care enough about keep good relations with you to pay this cost.” But part of the cost was to make it harder to use talk to reduce the impact of misleading race and gender stereotypes on our actions. We might have been better off to instead pay a different kind of cost, such as cash transfers.

I’m basically invoking the usual argument for the info value of free speech here. It is an argument that is often given lip service, but alas our commitment to it is far weaker than our lip service would suggest.

Added 14May: Maybe when people say they want a “conversation about race”, they don’t mean that old white men should do any talking beyond nodding agreement and sympathy with other speakers.

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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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