Tag Archives: Signaling

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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Neglecting Win-Win Help

Consider three kinds of acts:

  • S. Selfish – helps you, and no one else.
  • A. Altruistic – helps others, at a cost to you.
  • M. Mixed – helps others, and helps you.

To someone who is honestly and simply selfish, acts of type A would be by far the least attractive. All else equal such people would do fewer acts of type A, relatives to other types. Because they don’t care about helping others.

To someone who is honestly and simply altruistic, in contrast, acts of type M should be the most attractive. All else equal, such a person should more often do acts of type M, relative to the other types. A simply altruistic person is happy to help others while helping themself.

Now consider someone who wants to show others that they are altruistic and not selfish. To such a person, type M acts have a serious problem: since both selfish and altruistic people often do type M acts, observers may plausibly attribute their behavior to selfishness. Compared to a simply altruistic person, a person of this type finds type A acts more attractive, and type M acts less attractive. They want everyone to see them suffering, to show they are not selfish.

In fact, most people do seem to care just as much about seeming altruistic as about being altruistic. I thus predict a neglect of acts of type M, relative to acts of type A. For example:

  • Having kids. Observers often don’t credit parents for being altruistic toward their kids. They instead describe parents as selfishly wanting to enjoy the kids attention and devotion.
  • Having lovers. In a world of monogamous romantic pairs, someone who chooses not to pair up can force someone else to also go without a partner. So choosing to be part of a pair helps others. But observers often don’t credit romantic partners for altruism toward partners. They instead say lovers selfishly seek pleasure and flattery.
  • Inventing. While people in some kinds of professions are credited with choosing them in part to help others, people in other professions are not so credited, even when they give a lot of help. For example, nurses are often credited with altruism, but inventors are usually not so credited. Even though inventors often give a lot more help to the world. Perhaps because inventing seems more fun than nursing.
  • Marginal charity. Adjusting private optima a bit in the direction of social good helps others at almost no cost to yourself, but is hard for observers to distinguish from not doing so.

In sum, the more eager we are to show others that we care, the less eager we are to do things that both help us and help others. We instead do more things that help others while hurting us, so that we can distinguish ourselves from selfish people. Because of this we neglect win-win acts like having kids, being in love, and inventing. Which seems a shame.

Added 8a: Seems I’ve said something like this before, as did Katja Grace even earlier. Seems I’ve written more than I can keep track of.

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Why Do We So Seek Synch?

We economists are known for being “imperial” in trying to apply economics to almost everything. And that’s a goal I can get behind, in the sense of trying to find an integrated view of the social world, where all social phenomena have a place and some candidate explanations within a common framework. Of course many parts of this integrated view may start first in fields outside economics.

In pursuit of such an integrated view, I’ve been making a special effort to learn more about social phenomena that economists don’t talk much about. And since a lot of these phenomena are often associated with the words “play” and “ritual”, and it is sociologists who most seem to write about these things, I’ve been reading a lot of sociology.

Sixteen months ago I posted about an intriguing summary of Randall Collins’ book Interaction Ritual Chains:

Any physical gathering … turns into a ritual when those physically present focus their attention on specific people, objects, or symbols, and are thereby constituted as a distinct group with more or less clear boundaries. …

A ritual, for Collins, is basically an amplifier of emotion. … A successful ritual generates and amplifies motivating emotions. … Perhaps Collins’ most controversial claim is the idea that we are basically emotional energy “seekers”: much of our social activity can be understood as a largely unconscious “flow” along the gradient of maximal emotional energy charge for us, given our particular material resources and positions within the … set of ritual situations available to us. Our primary “motivation” is the search for motivation. … Motivation is simply a result of emotional amplification in ritual situations. …

Emotional charge or motivational energy is built up from entrainment: the micro-coordination of gesture, voice, and attention in rhythmic activity, down to tiny fractions of a second. Think of how in an engrossing conversation the partners are wholly attuned to one another, laughing and exhibiting emotional reactions simultaneously, keeping eye contact, taking turns at precisely the right moments, mirroring each other’s reactions. … Or consider sexual acts, to which Collins devotes a long and very interesting chapter. (more)

I’ve now read this book carefully, twice. Here is my report. Continue reading "Why Do We So Seek Synch?" »

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Lost For Words, On Purpose

When we use words to say how we feel, the more relevant concepts and distinctions that we know, the more precisely we can express our feelings. So you might think that the number of relevant distinctions we can express on a topic rises with a topic’s importance. That is, the more we care about something, the more distinctions we can make about it.

But consider the two cases of food and love/sex (which I’m lumping together here). It seems to me that while these topics are of comparable importance, we have a lot more ways to clearly express distinctions on foods than on love/sex. So when people want to express feelings on love/sex, they often retreat to awkward analogies and suggestive poetry. Two different categories of explanations stand out here:

1) Love/sex is low dimensional. While we care a lot about love/sex, there are only a few things we care about. Consider money as an analogy. While money is important, and finance experts know a great many distinctions, for most people the key relevant distinction is usually more vs. less money; the rest is detail. Similarly, evolution theory suggests that only a small number of dimensions about love/sex matter much to us.

2) Clear love/sex talk looks bad.  Love/sex are to supposed to have lots of non-verbal talk, so a verbal focus can detract from that. We have a norm that love/sex is to be personal and private, a norm you might seem to violate via comfortable impersonal talk that could easily be understood if quoted. And if you only talk in private, you learn fewer words, and need them less. Also, a precise vocabulary used clearly could make it seem like what you wanted from love/sex was fungible – you aren’t so much attached to particular people as to the bundle of features they provide. Precise talk could make it easier for us to consciously know what we want when, which makes it harder to self-deceive about what we want. And having available more precise words about our love/sex relations could force us to acknowledge smaller changes in relation status — if “love” is all there is, you can keep “loving” someone even as many things change.

It seems to me that both kinds of things must be going on. Even when we care greatly about a topic, we may not care about many dimensions, and we may be better off not being able to express ourselves clearly.

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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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