Tag Archives: Signaling

Authentic Signals

Many people (including me) claim that we eat food and drink water because without nutrition and fluids we would starve and dehydrate. Imagine this response:

No, people eat food because they are hungry, and drink water because they are thirsty. We don’t need abstract concepts like nutrition and dehydration to explain something so elemental as following our authentic feelings and desires.

Yes hunger and thirst are direct proximate causes of eating and drinking. But we are often interested in finding more distal explanations of such proximate causes. So almost no one objects to the nutrition and dehydration explanations of eating and drinking.

However, one of the most common criticisms I get about signaling explanations of human behavior is that we are instead just following authentic feelings and desires. As in this exchange:

Yes, people don’t need to consciously force themselves to express opinions on many topics. That habit comes quite naturally. Even so, we might want to explain that habit in terms of more basic distal forces.

I’m an economics professor, and the vast majority of economic papers and books that offer explanations for human behaviors don’t bother to distinguish if their explanations are mediated by conscious intentions or not. (In fact, most papers on any topic don’t take a stance on most possible distinctions related to their topic.) Economics are in fact famously wary (too wary I’d say) of survey data, as they fear conscious thoughts can mislead about economic behaviors.

Yet I’ve had even economics colleagues tell me that I should take more care, when I point out possible signaling explanations, to say if I am claiming that such signaling effects are consciously intended. But why would it be more important to distinguish conscious intentions in this context, compared to the rest of economics and social science?

My best guess is that what is going on here is that our social norms disapprove mildly of consciously intended signaling. Just as we aren’t supposed to brag, we also aren’t supposed to do things on purpose to make ourselves look good. It is okay to look good, but only as a side effect of doing things for other reasons. And as we usually claim other reasons for these behaviors, if we are actually doing them for signaling reasons we could also be accused of lying, which is also a norm violation.

Thus many see my signaling explanation proposals as accusing them personally of norm violations. At which point, they become vastly more interested in defending themselves against this accusation than in evaluating my general claims about human behavior. Perhaps if I were a higher status professor publishing in a prestigious journal, they might be reluctant to publicly challenge my claimed focus on distal explanations of general behavior patterns. But for mere tweets or blog posts by someone like me, they feel quite entitled to read me as accusing them of being bad people, unless I explicitly say otherwise. (And perhaps even then.) Sigh.

For the record, the degree of conscious intent of any behavior is a mildly interesting facet, but I’m less interested in it than are most people. This is in part because I’m inclined to give people less of a moral or legal pass on the harms resulting from behaviors if people do not consciously intend such consequences. It is just too easy for people to not notice such consequences, when they find it in their interest to not notice.

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Intellectuals as Artists

Consider some related phenomena:

  1. Casual conversation norms say to wander across many topics, with each person staying relevant to each current topic. This functions well to test individual impressiveness. Today, academic and mass media conversations today follow similar norms, though they did this much less in the ancient world.
  2. While ancient artists and musicians tried to perfect common styles, modern artists and musicians seek more distinctive personal styles. For example, while songs were once designed to sound good when ordinary folks sang them, now songs are designed to create a unique impressive performance by one artist.
  3. Politicians often go out of their way to do “position taking” on many issues, even on issues they have little chance of influencing policy while in office. Voters prefer systems like proportional representation where voters can identify more closely with particular representatives, even if this doesn’t give voters better outcomes overall. Knowing many of a politician’s positions helps voters to identify with them.
  4. “Sophomoric” thinkers, typically college sophomores, are eager to take positions on as many common topics as possible, even if this means taking poorly consider positions. They don’t feel they are adult until they have an opinion ready for most common intellectual conversations. This is more feasible when opinions on each topic area are reduced to choices between a small number of standard “isms”, offering integrated packages of answers. Sophomoric thinkers love isms.
  5. We often try to extract “isms” out of individuals, such as my colleagues Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan. We might ask “What is the Caplanian position on X?” That is, we wonder how they would answer random questions, presuming that we can infer a coherent style from past positions that would answer all future questions, at least within some wide scope. Intellectuals who desire wider attention often go out of their way to express opinions on many topics, chosen via a distinctive personal style.

We pretend that we search only for truth, picking each specific position only via the strongest specific evidence and arguments. And in many mundane contexts that’s not a bad approximation. But in many other grander contexts we seek more to become and associate with distinctive intellectual artists. Such artists are impressive both via the wide range of topics on which they can be impressive, and via having a distinctive personal style that they can bring to bear on this range of topics.

This all makes complete sense as an impressiveness contest, but far less sense as a way for the world to jointly estimate accurate Bayesian estimates on each topic. I’m sure you can make up reasons why distinctive intellectual styles that imply positions on wide ranges of topics are really great ways to produce accuracy. But they will mostly sound like excuses to me.

Sophomoric thinkers often retain for a lifetime the random opinions they quickly generate without much thought. Yet they don’t want to just inherit their parents positions; they need to generate their own new opinions. I wonder which effect will dominate when young ems choose opinions; will they tend to adopt standard positions of prior clan members, or generate their own new individual opinions?

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When to Parrot, Pander, or Think for Yourself

Humans are built to argue and persuade. We tend to win when we endorse arguments that others accept, and win even more when we can generate new arguments that others will accept. This is both because people notice who originated the arguments that they accept, and because this ability helps us to move others toward opinions that favor our policies and people.

All of this is of course relative to some community who evaluates our arguments. Sometimes the larger world defers to a community of experts, and then it is that community who you must persuade. In other cases, people insist on deciding for themselves, and then you have to persuade them directly.

Consider three prototypical discussions:

  1. Peers in a car, talking on the path to drive to reach an event where they are late.
  2. Ordinary people, talking on if and how black holes leak information.
  3. Parents, talking on how Santa Claus plans to delivers presents Christmas eve.

In case #1, it can be reasonable for peers to think sincerely, in the sense of looking for arguments to persuade themselves, and then offering those same arguments to each other. It can be reasonable here to speak clearly and directly, to find and point out flaws in others’ arguments, and to believe that the net result is to find better approximations to truth.

In case #2, most people are wise to mostly parrot what they hear experts say on the topic. The more they try to make up their own arguments, or even to adapt arguments they’ve heard to particular contexts, the more they risk looking stupid. Especially if experts respond. On such topics, it can pay to be abstract and somewhat unclear, so that one can never be clearly shown to be wrong.

In case #3, parents gain little from offering complex new arguments, or even finding flaws in the usual kid arguments, at least when only parents can understand these. Parents instead gain from finding variations on the usual kid arguments that kids can understand, variations that get kids to do what parents want. Parents can also gain from talking at two levels at once, one discussion at a surface visible to kids, and another at a level visible only to other parents.

These three cases illustrate the three general cases, where your main audience is 1) about as capable , 2) more capable, or 3) less capable than you in generating and evaluating arguments on this topic. Your optimal argumentation strategy depends on in which of these cases you find yourself.

When your audience is about the same as you, you can most usefully “think for yourself”, in the sense that if an argument persuades you it will probably persuade your audience as well, at least if it uses popular premises. So you can be more comfortable in thinking sincerely, searching for arguments that will persuade you. You can be eager to find fault w/ arguments and criticize them, and to listen to such criticisms to see if they persuade you. And you can more trust the final consensus after your discussion.

The main exception here is where you tend to accept premises that are unpopular with your audience. In this case, you can either disconnect with that audience, not caring to try to persuade them, or you can focus less on sincerity and more on persuasion, seeking arguments that will convince them given their different premises.

When your audience is much more capable than you, then you can’t trust your own argument generation mechanism. You must instead mostly look to what persuades your superiors and try to parrot that. You may well fail if you try to adapt standard arguments to particular new situations, or if you try to evaluate detailed criticisms of those arguments. So you try to avoid such things. You instead seek generic positions that don’t depend as much on context, expressed in not entirely clear language that lets you decide at the last minute what exactly you meant.

When your audience is much less capable than you, then arguments that persuade you tend to be too complex to persuade them. So you must instead search for arguments that will persuade them, even if they seem wrong to you. That is, you must pander. You are less interested in rebuttals or flaws that are too complex to explain to your audience, though you are plenty interested in finding flaws that your audience can understand. You are also not interested in finding complex fixes and solutions to such flaws.

You must attend not only to the internal coherence of your arguments, but also to the many particular confusions and mistakes to which your audience is inclined. You must usually try arguments out to see how well they work on your audience. You may also gain by using extra layers of meaning to talk more indirectly to impress your more capable sub-audience.

What if, in addition to persuading best, you want to signal that you are more capable? To show that you are not less capable than your audience, you might go out of your way to show that you can sincerely, on the fly and without assistance, and without studying or practicing on your audience, construct new arguments that plausibly apply to your particular context, and identify flaws with new arguments offered by others. You’d be sincerely argumentative.

To suggest that you are more capable than your audience, you might instead show that you pay attention to the detailed mistakes and beliefs of your audience, and that you first try arguments out on them. You might try to show that you are able to find arguments by which you could persuade that audience of a wide range of conclusions, not just the conclusions you privately find the most believable. You might also show that you can simultaneously make persuasive arguments to your general audience, while also discreetly making impressive comments to a sub-audience that is much more capable. Sincerely “thinking for yourself” can look bad here.

In a world where people following the strategies I’ve outlined above, the quality of general opinion on each topic probably depends most strongly on something near the typical capability of the relevant audience that evaluates arguments on that topic. (I’d guess roughly the 80th percentile matters most on average.) The less capable mostly parrot up, and the more capable mostly pander down. Thus firms tend to be run in ways that makes sense to that rank employee or investor. Nations are run in ways that make sense to that rank citizen. Stories make sense to that rank reader/viewer. And so on. Competition between elites pandering down may on net improve opinion, as may selective parroting from below, though neither seems clear to me.

If we used better institutions for key decisions (e.g., prediction/ decision markets), then the audience that matters might become much more capable, to our general benefit. Alas that initial worse audience usually decides not to use better institutions. And in a world of ems typical audiences also become much more capable, to their benefit.

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Mormon Transhumanists

A standard trope of science fiction has religious groups using violence to stop a new technology. Perhaps because of this, many are surprised by the existence of religious transhumanists. Saturday I gave a keynote talk on Age of Em at the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) annual conference, and had a chance to study such folks in more detail. And I should say right off the top that this MTA audience, compared to other audiences, had notably fewer morality or religious related objections to my em scenario.

I’m not surprised by the existence of religious tech futurists. Overall, the major world religions have been quite successful in adapting to the many social changes since most of them first appeared many millennia ago. Also, the main predictor of interest in tech futurism and science fiction is an interest in science and technology, and religious folks are not underrepresented there. Even so, you might ask what your favorite theories of religion predict about how MTA folk would differ from other transhumanists.

The most obvious difference I saw is that MTA does community very well, with good organization, little shirking, and lots of polite, respectful, and friendly interaction. This makes sense. Mormons in general have strong community norms, and one of the main functions of religion is to build strong communities. Mormonism is a relatively high commitment religion, and those tend to promote stronger bonds.

Though I did not anticipate it, a predictable consequence of this is that MTA is more of a transhuman take on Mormonism than a Mormon take on transhumanism. On reflection, this reveals an interesting way that long-lived groups with dogmas retain and co-op smart intellectuals. Let me explain.

One standard sales technique is to try to get your mark to spend lots of time considering your product. This is a reason why salespeople often seem so slow and chatty. The more time you spend considering their product, the longer that you will estimate it will take to consider other products, and the more likely you are to quit searching and take their product.

Similarly, religions often expose children to a mass of details, as in religious stories. Smart children can be especially engaged by these details because they like to show off their ability to remember and understand detail. Later on, such people can show off their ability to interpret these details in many ways, and to identify awkward and conflicting elements.

Even if the conflicts they find are so severe as to reasonably call into question the entire thing, by that time such people have invested so much in learning details of their religion that they’d lose a lot of ability to show off if they just left and never talked about it again. Some become vocally against their old religion, which lets them keep talking and showing off about it. But even in opposition, they are still then mostly defined by that religion.

I didn’t meet any MTA who took Mormon claims on miraculous historical events literally. They seemed well informed on science and tech and willing to apply typical engineering and science standards to such things. Even so, MTA folks are so focused on their own Mormon world that they tend to be less interested in asking how Mormons could anticipate and prepare for future changes, and more interested in how future/sci/tech themes could reframe and interpret key Mormon theological debates and claims. In practice their strong desire to remain Mormons in good standing means that they mostly accept practical church authority, including the many ways that the church hides the awkward and conflicting elements of its religions stories and dogma.

For example, MTA folks exploring a “new god argument” seek scenarios wherein we might live in a simulation that resonate with Mormon claims of a universe full of life and gods. While these folks aren’t indifferent to the relative plausibility of hypotheses, this sort of exercise is quite different from just asking what sort of simulations would be most likely if we in fact did live in a simulation.

I’ve said that we today live in an unprecedented dreamtime of unadaptive behavior, a dream from which some will eventually awake. Religious folks in general tend to be better positioned to awake sooner, as they have stronger communities, more self-control, and higher fertility. But even if the trope applies far more in fiction than in reality, it remains possible that Mormon religious orthodoxy could interfere with Mormons adapting to the future.

MTA could help to deal with such problems by becoming trusted guides to the future for other Mormons. To fill that role, they would of course need to show enough interest in Mormon theology to convince the others that they are good Mormons. But they would also need to pay more attention to just studying the future regardless of its relevance to Mormon theology. Look at what is possible, what is likely, and the consequences of various actions. For their sakes, I hope that they can make this adjustment.

By the way, we can talk similarly about libertarians who focus on criticizing government regulation and redistribution. The more one studies the details of government actions, showing off via knowing more such detail, then even if one mostly criticizes such actions, still one’s thinking becomes mostly defined by government. To avoid this outcome, focus more on thinking about what non-government organizations should do and how. It isn’t enough to say “without government, the market will do it.” Become part of a market that does things.

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Missing Credentials

The typical modern credential (i.e., standard worker quality sign of widely understood significance) is based on a narrow written declared test of knowledge given early in one’s career on a pre-announced date at a quiet location. In this test, there is a list of questions to which one gives answers, answers then graded by independent judges who supposedly look only at the answers, and don’t take into account other things they know about the testee. In this post I want to point out that a much larger space of credentials are possible.

For example, you could be evaluated on actual products and contributions, based on your efforts over a long period, instead of being evaluated on short tests. You could be tested via tasks you must perform, instead of questions you must answer. After all, mostly we want to know what workers can do, not what questions they can answer. Since much of real question answering in the world is done verbally, test question-answering could also be done verbally, instead of in writing. And it could be done with frequent distractions and interruptions, as with most real question-answering.

However expressed, judges could take your first response as a starting point to ask you more questions (or give you more tasks), and dig deeper into your understanding. Judges could know you well, and choose questions specifically for you, and interpret your answers given all they know about you. This is, after all, closer to how most question-answering in the world actually goes.

Tests could be done at random days and times, and spread all through your career. Tests might be disguised as ordinary interactions, and not revealed to be tests until afterward. These approaches could discourage cramming for tests and other strategies that makes you good only at tests, and not so much at remembering or using your knowledge at other times.

Finally, you could be tested on your ability to integrate knowledge from a wide range of topic areas, instead of on your knowledge of a narrow topic area. Yes you could show that you know many areas via passing tests for many areas, but that won’t show that you have integrated these diverse areas usefully together in your mind.

Of course I’m not saying that these variations are never explored, just that they are used much less often than the standard credential test. This vast space of possible credentials suggests that a lot of innovation may be possible, and I’m naturally especially interested in helping to develop better credentials for abilities that I have which are neglected by the usual credentials. For example, I’d love to see a polymath credential, for those who can integrate understanding of many fields, and a conversation credential, on one’s ability to get to the bottom of topics via a back & forth interaction.

The narrow range of most credentials compared to the vast possible space also seems to confirm Bryan Caplan’s emphasis on school as emphasizing and screening conformity. Yes the the usual kinds of tests can often be cheaper in many ways, but the lack of much variation even when credentials are very important, and so worth spending a bit more on, suggests that conformity is also an issue. It really does seem that people see non-standard tests as illicit in many ways.

The dominance of the usual credential test can also be seen as a way our society is unfairly dominated by the sort of writing-focused book-smart narrowly-skilled people who happen to be especially good at such tests. These people are in fact usually in charge of designing such tests.

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Against Prestige

My life has been, in part, a series of crusades. First I just wanted to understand as much as possible. Then I focused on big problems, wondering how to fix them. Digging deeper I was persuaded by economists: our key problems are institutional. Yes we can have lamentable preferences and cultures. But it is hard to find places to stand and levers to push to move these much, or even to understand the effects of changes. Institutions, in contrast, have specific details we can change, and economics can say which changes would help.

I learned that the world shows little interest in the institutional changes economists recommend, apparently because they just don’t believe us. So I focused on an uber institutional problem: what institutions can we use to decide together what to believe? A general solution to this problem might get us to believe economists, which could get us to adopt all the other economics solutions. Or to believe whomever happens to be right, when economists are wrong. I sought one ring to rule them all.

Of course it wasn’t obvious that a general solution exists, but amazingly I did find a pretty general one: prediction markets. And it was also pretty simple. But, alas, mostly illegal. So I pursued it. Trying to explain it, looking for everyone who had said something similar. Thinking and hearing of problems, and developing fixes. Testing it in the lab, and in the field. Spreading the word. I’ve been doing this for 28 years now. (Began at age 29.)

And I will keep at it. But I gotta admit it seems even harder to interest people in this one uber solution than in more specific solutions. Which leads me to think that most who favor specific solutions probably do so for reasons other than the ones economists give; they are happy to point to economist reasons when it supports them, and ignore economists otherwise. So in addition to pursuing this uber fix, I’ve been studying human behavior, trying to understand why we seem so disinterested.

Many economist solutions share a common feature: a focus on outcomes. This feature is shared by experiments, incentive contracts, track records, and prediction markets, and people show a surprising disinterest in all of them. And now I finally think I see a common cause: an ancient human habit of strong deference to the prestigious. As I recently explained, we want to affiliate with the prestigious, and feel that an overly skeptical attitude toward them taints this affiliation. So we tend to let the prestigious in each area X decide how to run area X, which they tend to arrange more to help them signal than to be useful. This happens in school, law, medicine, finance, research, and more.

So now I enter a new crusade: I am against prestige. I don’t yet know how, but I will seek ways to help people doubt and distrust the prestigious, so they can be more open to focusing on outcomes. Not to doubt that the prestigious are more impressive, but that letting them run the show produces good outcomes. I will be happy if other competent folks join me, though I’m not especially optimistic. Yet. Yet.

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Beware Prestige-Based Discretion

Before the modern world, most jobs had a big physical component. And so physical ability (strength, speed, stamina, coordination, etc.) was one of the main things people tried to show off. Yes, people did try to show off physical abilities on the job. But when people got serious about showing off, they created special off-the-job contests, such as races and games.

These special contests made it much easier for observers to see small ability differences. For example, you might watch messengers all day on the job running from place to place, and though you’d get a vague idea of which ones were faster, you couldn’t see fine differences very well. But a race controls for other variation by having contestants all start at the same time on a line, and all run straight to a finish line. So even if one runner beats another by only a fraction of a second, observers can still see the difference. Other kinds of special contests also reduce noise, making it easier to see smaller ability differences.

When people can choose between competition forums with more and less noise, signaling incentives will induce them to choose forums with less noise. After all, competitors who choose forums with more noise will be seen as trying to hide their lower abilities among the noise.

So if messengers who wanted to show off their running abilities had a lot of discretion about how messenger jobs were arranged, they’d try to make their jobs look a lot like races. Which would help them show off, but would be less effective at getting messages delivered. Which is why people who hire messengers need to pay attention to how fast messages get delivered, and not just to hiring the fastest runners. Just hiring the fastest runners and letting them decide how messages get delivered is a recipe for waste.

In the rest of society, however, we often both try to hire people who seem to show off the highest related abilities, and we let those most prestigious people have a lot of discretion in how the job is structured. For example, we let the most prestigious doctors tell us how medicine should be run, the most prestigious lawyers tells us how law should be run, the most prestigious finance professionals tell us how the financial system should work, and the most prestigious academics tell us how to run schools and research.

This can go very wrong! Imagine that we wanted research progress, and that we let the most prestigious researchers pick research topics and methods. To show off their abilities, they may pick topics and methods that most reduce the noise in estimating abilities. For example, they may pick mathematical methods, and topics that are well suited to such methods. And many of them may crowd around the same few topics, like runners at a race. These choices would succeed in helping the most able researchers to show that they are in fact the most able. But the actual research that results might not be very useful at producing research progress.

Of course if we don’t really care about research progress, or students learning, or medical effectiveness, etc., if what we mainly care about is just affiliating with the most impressive folks, well then all this isn’t much of a problem. But if we do care about these things, then unthinkingly presuming that the most prestigious people are the best to tell us how to do things, that can go very very wrong.

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Who Wants School? 

We can explain human behavior on many levels. For example, we can explain a specific choice in terms of that person’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Or we can explain typical patterns of individual behavior in terms of their stable preferences, resources, abilities, and a rough social equilibrium in which people find themselves. Or one can try to explain why different social worlds find themselves in different local equilibria.

For example, while pressures to confirm are indeed often powerful, that power makes conformity especially inadequate as a total explanation. Yes in an equilibrium where everyone squawks like a chicken when they meet, you’d seem weird if you didn’t also squawk. But if we found a place where that was in fact the equilibrium, we might still puzzle over why that happened there.

Last week I tried to outline an explanation for why young people in rich nations today spend so much energy signaling their work potential via school. Yes in today’s equilibrium you look weird if you try to skip prestigious schools to show your work potential in other ways. So yes we can explain the typical pattern of personal school choices today in terms of the equilibrium that people find themselves in.

But centuries ago few went to school, and the few who went didn’t go long. So young people mostly showed their work potential in other ways, such as via family background and child labor. And then over the last few centuries enthusiasm for school grew greatly, until today 2/3 of US kids graduate from high school, and 2/3 of those at least start college. Mere conformity pressures seem quite inadequate to explain this vast change.

My tentative story less tries to explain individual behavior given a local equilibrium, and more tries to explain why cultures changed to support new different equilibria. I can believe that today school’s main function is to signal work potential, and that child labor has always been better at school at signaling work potential and at acclimating kids to work habits, if the local culture supports that pattern.

But as I said in my last post, cultures around the world and through history have been typically hostile to industrial work habits, such as frequent explicit novel orders and ranking. Adults resisted both such taking such jobs themselves and sending their kids to learn such jobs. And culture seems to have contributed a lot to this, such as via status concepts; people were often ashamed to take such jobs.

Because schools have long and widely had a more prestigious and noble image, people have been more eager to send their kids to school. So schools could habituate kids into industrial workplace styles, and parents could be less ashamed of accepting this. I’m not saying that this was a conscious plan (though sometimes it was), but that this was a lower-resistance path for cultural evolution. Societies that adopted more industry friendly schooling tended to get richer and then other societies were more willing to copy them.

Bryan Caplan seems to accept part of my story:

Let me propose a variant on Robin’s story.  Namely: While school is not and never was a good way to acclimate kids to the world of work, it does wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric or “prestige.”  “Teaching every child to reach his full potential” sounds far nobler than “Training every child for his probable future.”  As a result, making the political case for ample education funding is child’s play.  Education’s prestigious image in turn cements its focal status role, making academic achievement our society’s central signal of conformity.

Where Bryan disagrees is that he sees government as the main agent pushing school. He says it wasn’t individual workers who were unwilling to adopt industrial work habits, it was government regulators:

The main problem of development isn’t that people in poor places won’t individually submit to foreign direction, but that people in poor places won’t collectively submit to foreign direction.  “Letting foreigners run our economy” sounds bad, but individuals are happy to swallow their pride for higher wages.  Voters and politicians in LDCs, in contrast, loathe to put a price on pride – and therefore hamstring multinationals in a hundred different destructive ways.

And he says it wasn’t individuals who were eager to send their kids to school, it was government:

While I don’t dwell on history, my book does answer the question, “Why does schooling pass the market test?”  My answer is: “Market test?!  Government showers almost a trillion dollars a year on the status quo, and you call that ‘passing the market test’?!” … When individuals spend their own money, of course, they at least ponder whether what sounds wonderful is really worth the cost.  For collective spending, in contrast, Social Desirability Bias reigns supreme.

But these just don’t match the history I’ve read. For example, In the US there was a lots of other school funding before government took over:

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Public schools were always under local control, with no federal role, and little state role. The 1840 census indicated that of the 3.68 million children between the ages of five and fifteen, about 55% attended primary schools and academies. (more)

On typical worker reluctance to follow orders, see Greg Clark’s classic “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed? Lessons from the Cotton Mills”:

Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could “… it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won’t … They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings.” In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.

Chris Dillow says my viewpoint is not new, and quotes some 70s Marxist scholars:

Robin would, I guess, reach for the holy water and crucifix on learning this, but his idea is an orthodox Marxian one. I don’t say this to embarrass him. Quite the opposite. I do so to point out that Marxists and libertarians have much in common. We both believe that freedom is a – the? – great good; Marxists, though, more than right-libertarians, are also troubled by non-state coercion. We are both sceptical about whether state power can be used benignly. … However, whereas Marxists have engaged intelligently with right-libertarianism, the opposite has, AFAIK, not been the case – as Robin and Bryan’s ignorance of the intellectual history of Robin’s theory of schooling demonstrates. This is perhaps regrettable.

To be clear, I’m only somewhat libertarian, I’m happy to credit Marxist scholars with useful insight, and I wasn’t claiming my view on schools to be starkly original. I’m well aware that many have long seen school as training kids in industrial work habits. What I haven’t seen elsewhere, though I could easily believe it has been said before, is the idea of schools being an easier to swallow form of work habituation due to the ancient human connection between prestige and learning.

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School Is To Submit

Most animals in the world can’t be usefully domesticated. This isn’t because we can’t eat their meat, or feed them the food they need. It is because all animals naturally resist being dominated. Only rare social species can let a human sit in the role of dominant pack animal whom they will obey, and only if humans do it just right.

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. Related complaints are often made about the poorest workers in rich societies; they just won’t consistently do what they are told. It seems pride is a big barrier to material wealth.

The farming mode required humans to swallow many changes that didn’t feel nice or natural to foragers. While foragers are fiercely egalitarian, farmers are dominated by kings and generals, and have unequal property and classes. Farmers work more hours at less mentally challenging tasks, and get less variety via travel. Huge new cultural pressures, such as religions with moralizing gods, were needed to turn foragers into farmers.

But at work farmers are mostly autonomous and treated as the equal of workers around them. They may resent having to work, but adults are mostly trusted to do their job as they choose, since job practices are standardized and don’t change much over time. In contrast, productive industrial era workers must accept more local domination and inequality than would most farmers. Industry workers have bosses more in their face giving them specific instructions, telling them what they did wrong, and ranking them explicitly relative to their previous performance and to other nearby workers. They face more ambiguity and uncertainty about what they are supposed to do and how.

How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? A simple answer I want to explore in this post is: prestigious schools.

While human foragers are especially averse to even a hint of domination, they are also especially eager to take “orders” via copying the practices of prestigious folks. Humans have a uniquely powerful capacity for cultural evolution exactly because we are especially eager and able to copy what prestigious people do. So if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former.

In his upcoming book, The Case Against Education, my colleague Bryan Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist. I agree with Bryan that, compared with the theory that older students mostly go to school to learn useful skills, signaling better explains the low usefulness of school subjects, low transfer to other tasks, low retention of what is taught, low interest in learning relative to credentials, big last-year-of-school gains, and student preferences for cancelled classes.

My main problem with Caplan’s story so far (he still has time to change his book) is the fact that centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs, and the school signaling system has slowly displaced that job signaling system. Pressures to conform to existing practices can’t explain this displacement of a previous practice by a new practice. So why did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?

Like early jobs, school can have people practice habits that will be useful in jobs, such as showing up on time, doing what you are told even when that is different from what you did before, figuring out ambiguous instructions, and accepting being frequently and publicly ranked relative to similar people. But while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people.

Forager children aren’t told what to do; they just wander around and do what they like. But they get bored and want to be respected like adults, so eventually they follow some adults around and ask to be shown how to do things. In this process they sometimes have to take orders, but only until they are no longer novices. They don’t have a single random boss they don’t respect, but can instead be trained by many adults, can select them to be the most prestigious adults around, and can stop training with each when they like.

Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from their following his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.

When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school, even though such things will happen far more often than their ancestors would have tolerated. And if their job ends up giving them prestige, their prior “submission” to prestigious teachers will seem more appropriate.

This point of view can help explain how schools could help workers to accept habits of modern workplaces, and thus how there could have been selection for societies that substituted schools for early jobs or other child activities. It can also help explain unequal gains from school; some kinds of schools should be less effective than others. For example, teachers might not be prestigious, teachers may fail to show up on time to teach, teacher evaluations might correlate poorly with student performance, students might not have much choice of classes, school tasks might diverge too far from work tasks, students may not get prestigious jobs, or the whole process might continue too long into adulthood, long after the key habituation has been achieved.

In sum, while students today may mostly use schools to signal smarts, drive, and conformity, we need something else to explain how school displaced early work in this signaling role. One plausible story is that schools habituate students in modern workplace habits while on the surface looking more like prestigious forager teachers than like the dominating bosses that all animals are primed to resist. But this hardly implies that everything today that calls itself a school is equally effective at producing this benefit.

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Engagement As Respect

It saddens me to see funerals where attendees only say generic nice things about the deceased. Such as that he or she was a good neighbor, parent, or professional. I’d rather hear more specific descriptions and evaluations, some of them mildly negative, or at least not obviously positive. The usual platitudes suggest that people didn’t actually notice the deceased very much as a distinct person. “You say Fred from accounting’s funeral is Saturday; which one was Fred again?”

At my funeral, I prefer attendees to signal that they actually noticed me as a distinct person, and that they engaged that distinctiveness to some degree. I want them to have enough confidence in my reputation and the wider perception of my value to point out features of me that are not obviously positive. I want to have been a specific vivid person to them, who they often liked but sometimes didn’t. I’d like them to share specific anecdotes that remind them of my specific distinct features, both good and bad.

I feel similarly about book reviews. It saddens me to think of someone putting in all the effort it takes to write a book, but then even when their book seems to get a lot of attention, reviews mostly just rephrase the book jacket summary, or give generic praise like “must read” and “interesting”. It makes one suspect that most book reviewers haven’t actually read the book. Or if they read it, the book skimmed past their attention without making much of an impact, like an easy-watching TV show.

My first book comes out in May, and instead of having people generically “like” it, I’d much rather that my book had an impact on their thoughts, so that they became different in some way after reading it. I want them to have engaged my ideas enough that they actually grappled with some of the difficult issues I raise. They weren’t just carried along by my entertaining show, but they actually thought about what I said at some point. And readers who engage difficult issues discussed by an author almost never end up agreeing with that author all the way down the line. So the fact a reviewer disagrees with me on some points is a credible sign that they actually read and engaged my book. Which shows they thought my book worth engaging.

Yes, in a sense what I’m asking for here is counter-signaling. Acquaintances distinguish themselves from strangers by acting generically nice to you, such as by dressing nice, being polite, etc., but friends distinguish themselves from acquaintances by feeling free to speak their minds to you and dressing comfortably around you. At my funeral, I want people to see I had friends, and for my book I desire more impact on readers than just “I read some books on X and Y lately; they were okay, though I forget what they said.”

And yes, when signals are ranked by quality, then asking explicitly for a high quality signal is risky, because that can force people to say explicitly “Yes, some people deserve that high of a signal, but not everyone, and not you, you aren’t good enough.” But that is the risk I now take by saying: love me or hate me, but notice and remember me. Respect me by engaging me.

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