Tag Archives: Signaling

Political System Change Is Weird

Why do we have the political systems that we do? Back in the farming era, regimes competed militarily. Winners had more militarily effective total systems on average, and part their total system was their political system, which was therefore plausibly militarily effective.

Over the last seventy years, however, the selection power of military competition has been very weak. And it was somewhat weak for a while before then. If we ignore external conquest, political systems might be explained as the conscious choice of rulers: the systems are those that rulers (including voters) choose. But political systems have changed only modestly, even when there has been a lot of change in who runs them or what policies they implement, and lots of change in the rest of society.

You might say that our political systems are so stable because they are near perfect – rulers can’t imagine any better systems. But then why do systems vary so much around the world. And given the vast space of possible political systems, it isn’t plausible that we’ve explored more than a tiny corner of that space.

You might say that each local system is perfectly adapted to its local circumstances. But situations don’t seem that different. You might say that change in political systems is very expensive, so expensive that change is almost never worth the cost. But then why did systems ever change in the past? It is hard to see change being less expensive then.

It seems to me that the main reason political systems change so little these days is that it just seems weird to seriously suggest such changes. And not a good kind of weird. You can’t plausibly pose yoursel as a revolutionary martyr; people won’t actively stop you; they’ll just yawn and think you boring. And proposing to change the system isn’t a good way to show loyalty to existing political teams; even if your change clearly favors a team, it still seems needlessly round-about, relative to winning the usual way.

It isn’t clear to me exactly what processes make proposing changes to the political system seems so weird and boring to most folks today. But what does seem clearer to me is that variations in such processes are probably the main cause of variations today in political system change.

That is, while political systems vary in the outcomes they produce for people, and people vary in their opinions about such outcomes, such variations usually seem a pretty weak force today. A much stronger force seems to be whatever makes people look bad by even discussing the topic. It seems that political systems are stable more because they push folks to avoid discussing change than because they make people like the outcomes that such systems produce.

Until we return to an era when there is strong military competition, or until some big cultural change somehow makes discussing political system change cool, the political systems that we will have will mostly be the ones that somehow make folks look or feel bad to discuss changes, instead of the systems that most make people happy via their outcomes. Today, we are mostly selecting for political systems that tend to make discussing them seem weird.

Added 9p: What changes we have seen in political systems in the last seventy years have mainly been convergent – one place switching to the system of another place. There has been almost no exploring of the large space of possibilities.

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Beware Star Academia

I recently saw the show Old Jews Telling Jokes, and was reminded of a big change in humor over the last century. The show was full of old-style jokes, i.e., jokes designed to be funny given only a moderate level of showmanship. Once upon a time the jokes we heard were mostly jokes that got passed around because lots of pretty ordinary folks could tell them and get laughs. Today, instead, most jokes we hear are told by professional comics, who mostly tell their own unique jokes integrated with their life story and personality. Few others, even professional comics, can get such laughs from these jokes.

A similar change happened in music. Once upon a time the songs we heard were mostly songs that got passed around because many relatively ordinary folks could sing them and sound good. Today instead we mostly hear songs designed to show off the particular abilities of particular musicians. We are less tempted to sing these songs to our friends, or even to ourselves. Further in the past, a similar change happened with stories. Once, the stories we heard were passed around because many story tellers could enthrall listeners with them, even with many details changed. Then after the invention of writing we have preferred to pass around the exact words of particular story-tellers.

These changes seem driven by the ability to pass around more exactly the particular performances of particular artists. When we have that option, we take it eagerly. While we might think we mainly like the jokes, songs, and stories, and that artists are just a vehicle for getting to those. But it seems instead that we more care about admiring the abilities of particular artists, and that jokes, songs, and stories mostly vehicles to showcase artists.

If, as I have suggested, academia mainly functions to let us affiliate with impressive intellectuals, then academia should be at risk of suffering the same trend. That is, once upon a time we passed around the intellectual arguments and claims that a wide range of speakers could use in many contexts to persuade many listeners. But as we have gained better abilities to pass around the particular ways that particular speakers argue for claims, the above trend in jokes, song, and stories suggests that we did or will switch to focus more on the particular ways that particular intellectuals express and elaborate claims and arguments, and less on the claims and arguments themselves.

This is a problem because we have stronger reasons to expect that the arguments and claims that many people can use in many contexts to persuade varied listeners are more likely to be true, relative to those designed more to be parts of overall impressive displays by particular persons in particular contexts. If listeners actually care less if claims are true than if claimers are impressive, we should expect that when the audience for intellectuals can get better access to a rich personal display of attempted persuasion, they will lose much of their derived interest in the truth of claims. After all, maybe the audience never really cared that much if the claims were true – they mainly cared about claim truth as evidence of claimer impressiveness.

I’ve actually seen a lot that looks like this in my intellectual travels over the years. For example, many famous classic texts, especially in philosophy, are said to be popular because they can’t be effectively summarized or rephrased for a modern audience; to assimilate their insights, one must read the original authors in the original voices, even if their issues and styles are strange to us. We should suspect that folks read these classics less for insights and more for admiring and affiliating with impressive minds.

Also, I have seen people take arguments that others have made and express them with a bit more elegance and status, perhaps using more difficult methods, and get famous for originating such arguments, even when they mostly repeated what others said. It seems that people pretend that they celebrate these folks for originating certain arguments, but really want to admire and affiliate with their impressiveness.

Where could you go if you wanted to get the robust arguments, instead of affiliating with impressive intellectuals? First, read textbooks. I heartily recommend textbooks in most any subject. In fact, it is hard to do better than just sitting in a university bookstore and reading all the intro texts they have. Long ago I spent many days in the Stanford bookstore doing just that. Once you are done with textbooks, review articles are the next most robust option. And beware when interest in a topic seems to focus mainly on a particular author, and doesn’t transfer much to others who write on that same topic.

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Impressive Power

Monday I attended a conference session on the metrics academics use to rate and rank people, journals, departments, etc.:

Eugene Garfield developed the journal impact factor a half-century ago based on a two-year window of citations. And more recently, Jorge Hirsch invented the h-index to quantify an individual’s productivity based on the distribution of citations over one’s publications. There are also several competing “world university ranking” systems in wide circulation. Most traditional bibliometrics seek to build upon the citation structure of scholarship in the same manner that PageRank uses the link structure of the web as a signal of importance, but new approaches are now seeking to harness usage patterns and social media to assess impact. (agenda; video)

Session speakers discussed such metrics in an engineering mode, listing good features metrics should have, and searching for metrics with many good features. But it occurred to me that we can also discuss metrics in social science mode, i.e., as data to help us distinguish social theories. You see, many different conflicting theories have been offered about the main functions of academia, and about the preferences of academics and their customers, such as students, readers, and funders. And the metrics that various people prefer might help us to distinguish between such theories.

For example, one class of theories posits that academia mainly functions to increase innovation and intellectual progress valued by the larger world, and that academics are well organized and incentivized to serve this function. (Yes such theories may also predict individuals favoring metrics that rate themselves highly, but such effects should wash out as we average widely.) This theory predicts that academics and their customers prefer metrics that are good proxies for this ultimate outcome.

So instead of just measuring the influence of academic work on future academic publications, academics and customers should strongly prefer metrics that also measure wider influence on the media, blogs, business practices, ways of thinking, etc. Relative to other kinds of impact, such metrics should focus especially on relevant innovation and intellectual progress. This theory also predicts that, instead of just crediting the abstract thinkers and writers in an academic project, there are strong preferences for also crediting supporting folks who write computer programs, built required tools, do tedious data collection, give administrative support, manage funding programs, etc.

My preferred theory, in contrast, is that academia mainly functions to let outsiders affiliate with credentialed impressive power. Individual academics show exceptional impressive abstract mental abilities via their academic work, and academic institutions credential individual people and works as impressive in this way, by awarding them prestigious positions and publications. Outsiders gain social status in the wider world via their association with such credentialed-as-impressive folks.

Note that I said “impressive power,” not just impressiveness. This is the new twist that I’m introducing in this post. People clearly want academics to show not just impressive raw abilities, but also to show that they’ve translated such abilities into power over others, especially over other credentialled-as-impressive folks. I think we also see similar preferences regarding music, novels, sports, etc. We want people who make such things to show not only that they have have impressive abilities in musical, writing, athletics, etc., we also want them to show that they have translated such abilities into substantial power to influence competitors, listeners, readers, spectators, etc.

My favored theory predicts that academics will be uninterested in and even hostile to metrics that credit the people who contributed to academic projects without thereby demonstrating exceptional abstract mental abilities. This theory also predicts that while there will be some interest in measuring the impact of academic work outside academia, this interest will be mild relative to measuring impact on other academics, and will focus mostly on influence on other credentialed-as-impressives, such as pundits, musicians, politicians, etc. This theory also predicts little extra interest in measuring impact on innovation and intellectual progress, relative to just measuring a raw ability to change thoughts and behaviors. This is a theory of power, not progress.

Under my preferred theory of academia, innovation and intellectual progress are mainly side-effects, not main functions. They may sometimes be welcome side effects, but they mostly aren’t what the institutions are designed to achieve. Thus proposals that would tend to increase progress, like promoting more inter-disciplinary work, are rejected if they make it substantially harder to credential people as mentally impressive.

You might wonder: why would humans tend to seek signals of the combination of impressive abilities and power over others? Why not signal these things separately? I think this is yet another sign of homo hypocritus. For foragers, directly showing off one’s power is quite illicit, and so foragers had to show power indirectly, with strong plausible deniability. We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

So does anyone else have different theories of academia, with different predictions about which metrics academics and their customers will prefer? I look forward to the collection of data on who prefers which metrics, to give us sharper tests of these alternative theories of the nature and function of academia. And theories of music, stories, sport, etc.

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Why Do Bets Look Bad?

Most social worlds lack a norm of giving much extra respect to claims supported by offers to bet. This is a shame because such norms would reduce insincere untruthful claims, and so make for more accurate beliefs in listeners. But instead of advocating for change, in this post I wonder: why are such norms rare?

Yes there are random elements in which groups have which norms, and yes given a local norm that doesn’t respect bets it looks weird to offer bets there. But in this post I’m looking more to explain which norms appear where, and less who follows which norms.

Bets have been around for a long time, and by now most intellectuals understand them, and know that all else equal those who really believe more strongly are willing to bet more. So you might think it wouldn’t be that hard for a betting norm to get added on to all other local norms and cultural factors; all else equal respect bets as showing confidence. But if this happens it must be counter-balanced by other effects, or bets wouldn’t be so rare. What are these other effects?

While info often gets overtly shared in casual conversation, most of that info doesn’t seem very useful.  I thus conclude that casual conversation isn’t mainly about overtly sharing info. So I assume the obvious alternative: casual conversation is mostly about signaling (which is covert or indirect info sharing). But still the puzzle remains: whatever else we signal via conversation, why don’t we typically expect a betting offer to signal overall-admirable confidence in a claim?

One obvious general hypothesis to consider here is that betting signals typically conflict with or interact with other signals. But which other signals, and how? In the rest of this post I explore a few bad-looking features that bets might signal:

  • Sincerity – In many subcultures it looks bad to care a lot about most any topic of casual conversation. Such passion suggests that you just don’t get the usual social functions of such conversations. Conversationalists ideally skip from topic to topic, showing off their wits, smarts, loyalties, and social connections, but otherwise caring little about the truth on particular topics. Most academia communities seem to have related norms. Offers to bet, in contrast, suggest you care too much about the truth on a particular topic. Most listeners don’t care if your claim is true, so aren’t interested in your confidence. Of course on some topics people are expected to care a lot, so this doesn’t explain fewer bets there.
  • Conflict – Many actions we take are seen as signals of cooperation or conflict. That is, our actions are seen as indicating that certain folks are our allies, and that certain other folks are our rivals or opponents. A bet offer can be seen as an overt declaration of conflict, and thus make one look overly confrontational, especially within a group that saw itself as mainly made of allies. We often try to portray any apparent conflict in casual conversations as just misunderstandings or sharing useful info, but bets are harder to portray that way.
  • Provinciality – Bets are most common today in sports, and sport arguments and bets seem to be mostly about showing loyalty to particular teams. In sports, confrontation is more ok and expected about such loyalties. Offering to bet on a team is seen as much like offering to have a fist fight to defend your team’s honor. Because of this association with regional loyalties in sports, offers to bet outside of sports are also seen as affirmations of loyalties, and thus to conflict with norms of a universal intellectual community.
  • Imprudence – Some folks are impulsive and spend available resources on whatever suits their temporary fancy, until they just run out. Others are careful to limit their spending via various simple self-control rules on how much they may spend how often on what kinds of things. Unless one is in the habit of betting often from a standard limited betting budget, bets look like unusual impulsive spending. Bettors seem to not sufficiently keep under control their impulsive urges to show sincerity, make conflict, or signal loyalties.
  • Disloyalty – In many conversations it is only ok to quote as sources or supports people outside the conversation who are “one of us.” Since betting markets must have participants on both sides of a question, they will have participants who are not part of “us”. Thus quoting betting market odds in support of a claim inappropriately brings “them” in to “our” conversation. Inviting insiders to go bet in those markets also invites some of “us” to interact more with “them”, which also seems disloyal.
  • Dominance - In conversation we often pretend to support an egalitarian norm where the wealth and social status of speakers is irrelevant to which claims are accepted or rejected by the audience. Offers to bet conflict with that norm, by seeming to favor those with more money to bet. Somehow, who is how smart or articulate or has more free time to read are considered acceptable bases for conversation inequities. While richer folks could be expected to bet more, the conversation would have to explicitly acknowledge that they are richer, which is rude.
  • Greed - We often try to give the impression that we talk mainly to benefit our listeners. This is a sacred activity. Offering to bet money makes it explicit that we seek personal gains, which is profane. This is why folks sometimes offer to bet charity; the money goes to the winner’s favorite charity. But that looks suspiciously like bringing profane money-lenders into a sacred temple.

Last week I said bets can function much like arguments that offer reasons for a conclusion. If so, how do arguments avoid looking bad in these ways? Since the cost to offer an argument is much less than the cost to offer a bet, arguments seem less imprudent and less show sincerity. Since the benefits from winning arguments aren’t explicit, one can pretend to be altruistic in giving them. Also, you can pretend an argument is not directed at any particular listener, and so is not a bid for conflict. Since most arguments t0day are not about sports, arguments less evoke the image of a sports-regional-signal. As long as you don’t quote outsiders, arguments seem less an invitation to invoke or interact with outsiders.

If we are to find a way to make bets more popular, we’ll need to find ways to let people make bets without sending these bad-looking signals.

Added: It is suspicious that I didn’t do this analysis much earlier. This is plausibly due to the usual corrupting effect of advocacy on analysis; because I advocated betting, I analyzed it insufficiently.

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Talkative Sell, Silent Buy

Me six years ago:

Every transaction has both a buyer and a seller. Yet we hear much more about salesmen, and how to sell, than we do about buyermen and how to buy. … Why? [Since] buyers are usually more uncertain about their value than sellers are about their cost, … whether a sale happens is more clearly a signal of seller ability than of buyer ability. … We like to see and affiliate with people who have impressive abilities associated with sales. (more)

Katja and I did another podcast recently, this time on advertising, and we talked a bit about how people seem to pay more attention to selling than to buying. Katja noted that we seem to give more attention to the signals we send, vs. interpreting the signals of others. For example, we think more about what we will wear than about the judgements we form based on what other people wear. We think a lot more what our charity says about us than about what we think about others based on their charity.

Someone at the talk last Thursday argued that they can’t be donating to look good, since they don’t tell anyone. And that reminded me of how terrified people are to speak in public. And that brought a unifying explanation to mind: we more often need to verbally justify the signals we send than how we interpret the signals of others. Let me explain.

For our distant forager ancestors, their most important public speaking probably happened in situations where they were being accused, and needed to defend themselves. Since the generic accusation behind any specific accusation was that one wasn’t doing enough overall for the band, and maybe should be exiled or killed, our ancestors should have been eager to collect examples of the help they have given, especially unheralded help. So we may have inherited a habit of doing helpful things, and not calling attention to them, but remembering them so we could mention them later if called on to defend ourselves.

More generally, our ancestors probably acquired the habit of consciously thinking about actions that others were likely to challenge or criticize. They’d continually come up with explanations of what they did and why, and be ready to tell those stories, even if they didn’t actually have to explain or justify most of them. And because they were rarely asked to justify or explain the judgements they made about others, they didn’t get into as much of a habit of explaining those.

This theory predicts that we in fact give just as much mental attention to buying as to selling, and just as much to interpreting signals as to sending signals, because these are in fact on average equally as important to us. But we give a lot more conscious attention to the side that needs to be explained, because that is what consciousness is about – consciousness helps much less to make decisions than to explain and justify them.

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Bay Area Events

April 4,5, I’ll be at three public events in the Bay Area, CA:

  • Noon April 4, free food, talk on Em Econ at Quixey, 278 Castro St. (enter via Bryant St) Mountain View, CA. Please RSVP. Added: video.
  • 5pm April 4, free pizza, talk on Effective Altruism with GiveWell’s Elie Hassenfeld, at UCB Faculty Club, Howard Room. Added: audio.
  • Noon, April 5, OB picnic at UCB entrance grass, 2099 Oxford St, Berkeley, CA. 37.871565, -122.265751.

Btw, I was quoted in a 11Mar NPR show on Intrade closing.

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Why Good Is Crazy

My last post reminded me that the craziest beliefs ordinary folks endorse with a straight face are religious dogmas. And that seems an important clue to what situations break our minds. But to interpret this clue well, we need a sense for what is the key thing that “religions” have common. My last post suggested a hypothesis to me: compared to beliefs on who is dominant, impressive, or conformist, beliefs on who is “good” are the least connected to a constant reality. They and associated beliefs can thus be the most crazy.

Dominance is mostly about power via raw physical force and physical or legal resources. So it is relatively easy to discern, and we have strong incentives to avoid mistakes about it. And while prestige varies greatly by culture, the elements of prestige tend to be commonly impressive features. For example, the most popular sports vary by culture, but most sports show off a similar set of physical abilities. The most popular music genre varies by culture, but most music draws on a common set of musical abilities.

So while beliefs about the best sport or music may vary by culture, for the purpose of picking good mates or allies you can’t go too wrong by being impressed by whomever impresses folks from other cultures, and you have incentives not to make mistakes. For example, if you are mistakenly impressed by and mate with someone without real sport or music abilities, you who may end up with kids who lack those abilities, and fail to impress the next generation.

To discern who is a good conformist you do have to know something about the standards to which they conform. But if you want to associate with a conformist person, you can’t go too wrong by selecting people who are seen as conformist by their local culture. And if you mistakenly associate with someone who is less conformist than you thought, you may well suffer by being seen as non-conformist via your association with them.

Thus cultural variations in beliefs on dominance, prestige, or conformity are not huge obstacles to selecting and associating with people with desirable characteristics. That is to say, beliefs on such things tend to remain tied with strong personal incentives to important objective functional features of the world, ensuring they do not usually get very crazy.

Beliefs on goodness, however, are less tied to objective reality. Yes, beliefs on goodness can serve important functions for societies, encouraging people to do what benefits the society overall. The problem is that this isn’t functional in the same way for individuals. Each individual wants to seem to be good to others, to seem to praise others for being what is seen to be good, and to seem to approve when others praise others who seem to be good. But these are mostly pressures to go along with whatever the local cultures says is good, not to push for a concept of good that will in fact benefit society.

Thus concepts of what makes someone good are less tied to a constant reality than are concepts of what makes someone dominant, conformist, or prestigious. There may be weak slow group selection pressures that encourage cultures to see people as good who help that culture overall, but those pressures are much weaker than the pressures that encourage accurate assessment of who is dominant, conformist, or prestigious.

I suspect that our minds are built to notice that our concepts of goodness are less tied to reality, and so give such concepts more slack on that account. I also suspect that our minds also notice when other concepts are mainly tied to our concepts of goodness, and to similarly give them more slack.

For example, if you notice that your culture thinks people who act like Jesus are good, you will pay close attention to how Jesus was said to act, so you can act like that. But once you notice that the concept of Jesus mainly shows up connected to concepts of goodness, and is not much connected to more practical concepts like how to not crash your car, you will not think as critically about claims on the life or times of Jesus. After all, it doesn’t really matter to you if those are or could be true; what matters are the “morals” of the story of Jesus.

Today, a similar lack of attention to consistency or detail is probably associated with many aspects of things that are seen as good somewhat separately from if they are impressive or powerful. These may include what sorts of recycling or energy use is good for the planet, what sort of policies are good for the nation, what sort of music or art is good for your soul, and so on.

Since this analysis justified a lot of skepticism on concepts of and related to goodness, I am drawn toward a very cautious skeptical attitude in constructing and using such concepts. I want to start with the concepts where there is the least reason to doubt calling them good and well connected to reality, and want to try to go as far as I can with such concepts before adding in other less reliable concepts of good. It seems to me that giving people what they want is just about the least controversial element of good I can find, and thankfully economic analysis goes a remarkably long way with just that concept.

This analysis also suggests that, when doing policy analysis, one should spend as much time as possible doing neutral positive analysis of what is likely to happen if one does nothing, before proceeding to normative analysis of what actions would be best. This should help minimize the biases from our tendency toward wishful and good-based crazy thinking.

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Sleep Signaling

We sleep less well when we sleep together:

Our collective weariness is the subject of several new books, some by professionals who study sleep, others by amateurs who are short of it. David K. Randall’s “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep” belongs to the latter category. It’s a good book to pick up during a bout of insomnia. …

Research studies consistently find … that adults “sleep better when given their own bed.” One such study monitored couples over a span of several nights. Half of these nights they spent in one bed and the other half in separate rooms. When the subjects woke, they tended to say that they’d slept better when they’d been together. In fact, on average they’d spent thirty minutes more a night in the deeper stages of sleep when they were apart. (more)

In 2001, the National Sleep Foundation reported that 12% of American couples slept apart with that number rising to 23% in 2005. … Couples experience up to 50% more sleep disturbances when sleeping with their spouse. (more)

Why do we choose to sleep together, and claim that we sleep better that way, when in fact we sleep worse? This seems an obvious example of signaling aided by self-deception. It looks bad to your spouse to want to sleep apart. In the recent movie Hope Springs, sleeping apart is seen as a big sign of an unhealthy relation; most of us have internalized this association. So to be able to send the right sincere signal, we deceive ourselves into thinking we sleep better.

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Machiavelli On Listening

In 1505, Machiavelli advised leaders to let a few trusted advisors tell them the truth when answering specific questions in private, but to never let anyone advise them in public, especially at those people’s own initiative:

There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt. (more)

Machiavelli was very smart and insightful on such subjects. So I’m reluctant to disagree with him. But his advice seems to tell leaders never to listen to prediction markets, and I’m not quite ready to give up on that idea yet. So what I want now is to better understand Machiavelli’s advice: why exactly should leaders not let themselves be seen as listening to public advice others initiate?

Some possible theories:

  1. Advice givers are higher status that advice receivers, and leaders must seek maximal status.
  2. There are standard embarrassing truths and audiences take one’s ability to keep people from voicing them as a costly signal of dominance.
  3. If people can influence you by telling you things, they will spend too much effort trying to do so, at the expense of other useful activities.
  4. What else?
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More signaling

Centurion: Where is Brian of Nazareth?
Brian: You sanctimonious bastards!
Centurion: I have an order for his release!
Brian: You stupid bastards!
Mr. Cheeky: Uh, I’m Brian of Nazareth.
Brian: What?
Mr. Cheeky: Yeah, I – I – I’m Brian of Nazareth.
Centurion: Take him down!
Brian: I’m Brian of Nazareth!
Victim #1: Eh, I’m Brian!
Mr. Big Nose: I’m Brian!
Victim #2: Look, I’m Brian!
Brian: I’m Brian!
Victims: I’m Brian!
Gregory: I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!

- Monty Python’s Life of Brian

It’s easy for everyone to claim to be Brian. What Brian (and those who wish to identify him) need is a costly signal: an action that’s only worth doing if you are Brian, given that anyone who does the act will be released. In Brian’s life-or-death situation it is pretty hard to arrange such a thing. But in many other situations, costly signals can be found. An unprotected posture can be a costly signal of confidence in your own fighting ability, if this handicap is small for a competent fighter but dangerous for a bad fighter. College can act as a costly signal of diligence, if lazy, disorganized people who don’t care for the future would find attending college too big a cost for the improved job prospects.

A situation requires costly signaling when one party wishes to treat two types of people differently, but both types of people want to be treated in the better way. An analogous way to think of this as a game is that Nature decides between A or -A, then the sender looks at Nature’s choice, and gives a signal to the receiver, B or -B. Then the receiver takes an action, C or -C. The sender always wants the receiver to do C, but the receiver wants to do C if A and -C if -A. To stop the sender from lying, you can modify the costs to the sender of B and -B.

Suppose instead that the sender and the receiver perfectly agreed: either both wanted C always, or both wanted C if A and -C if -A. Then the players can communicate perfectly well even if all of the signals are costless – the sender has every reason to tell the receiver the truth.

If players can have these two kinds of preferences, and you have two players, these are the two kinds of signaling equilibria you can have (if the receiver always wants C, then he doesn’t listen to signals anyway).

Most of the communication in society involves far more than two players. But you might suppose it can be basically decomposed into two player games. That is, if two players who talk to each other both want C iff A, you might suppose they can communicate costlessly, regardless of who the first got the message from and where the message goes to. If the first one always wants C, you might expect costly signaling. If the second does, you might expect the message to be unable to pass that part in the chain. This modularity is important, because we mostly want to model little bits of big communication networks using simple models.

Surprisingly, this is not how signaling pairs fit together. To see this, consider the simplest more complicated case: a string of three players, playing Chinese Whispers. Nature chooses, the sender sees and tells an intermediary, who tells a receiver, who acts. Suppose the sender and the intermediary both always want C, while the receiver wants to act appropriately to Nature’s choice. By the above modular thesis, there will be a signaling equilibrium where the first two players talk honestly for free, and the second and third use costly signals between them.

Suppose everyone is following this strategy: the sender tells the intermediary whatever she sees, and the intermediary also tells the receiver honestly, because when he would like to lie the signal to do so is too expensive. Suppose you are the sender, and looking at Nature you see -A. You know that the other players follow the above strategy. So if you tell the intermediary -A, he will transmit this to the receiver, though he would rather not modulo signal prices. And that’s too bad for you, because you want C.

Suppose instead you lie and say A. Then the intermediary will pay the cost to send this message to the receiver, since he assumes you too are following the above set of strategies. Then the receiver will do what you want: C. So of course you lie to the intermediary, and send the message you want with all the signaling costs of doing so accruing to the intermediary. Your values were aligned with his before taking into account signaling costs, but now they are so out of line you can’t talk to each other at all. Given that you behave this way, he will quickly stop listening to you. There is no signaling equilibrium here.

In fact to get the sender to communicate honestly with the intermediary, you need the signals between the sender and the intermediary to be costly too. Just as costly as the ones between the intermediary and the receiver, assuming the other payoffs involved are the same for each of them. So if you add an honest signaling game before a costly signaling game, you get something that looks like two costly signaling games.

For example, take a simple model where scientists observe results, and tell journalists, who tell the public. The scientist and the journalist might want the public to be excited regardless of the results, whereas the public might want to keep their excitement for exciting results. In order for journalists who have exciting news to communicate it to the public, they need to find a way of sending signals that can’t be cheaply imitated by the unlucky journalists. However now that the journalists are effectively honest, scientists have reason to misrepresent results to them. So before information can pass through the whole chain, the scientists need to use costly signals too.

If you have an arbitrarily long chain of people talking to each other in this way, with any combination of these two payoff functions among the intermediaries, everyone who starts off always wanting C must face costly signals, of the same size as if they were in an isolated two player signaling game. Everyone who wants C iff A can communicate for free. It doesn’t matter whether communicating pairs are cooperative or not, before signaling costs. So for instance a whole string of people who apparently agree with one another can end up using costly signals to communicate because the very last one talks to someone who will act according to the state of the world.

So such things are not modular in the way you might first expect, though they are easily predicted by other simple rules. I’m not sure what happens in more complicated networks than strings. The aforementioned results might influence how networks form, since in practice it should be effectively cheaper overall to direct information through smaller numbers of people with the wrong type of payoffs. Anyway, this is something I’ve been working on lately. More here.

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