Tag Archives: Signaling

Writers Focus On Topic Or Audience?

Writers must attend both to their topic, and to their audience. They must learn things both about the topics on which they write, and about the people who will evaluate their writings. But to which of these do they attend more? For some kinds of writers, idealists say that they mostly attend to their topics, and for other kinds of writers, cynics say that they mostly attend to their audience. Who is more right?

To help answer this question, I suggest a simple test. When a writer solicits commentary on her drafts, does she mostly seek out people who know about the topics on which she writes, or does she mostly seek out people who are or are like or who can predict the audience she must please? Of course there is often a strong correlation between these features, as the audience one must please often knows a lot about the topic. And sometimes the audience is part of the topic. So attending to the audience can indirectly attend to the topic, and vice versa.

Even so, since knowledge of the topic and representation of the audience are not perfectly correlated, if one sees enough writers solicit enough commentary on drafts, one should be able to make out a difference. And in my limited experience, the writers I’ve known seem to focus much more on audience than on topic. They are eager to get comments from folks who know little about the topic but could be influential in getting their writing accepted (or are like or can predict such evaluators), and pay less attention to folks who know a lot about their topic but have little influence (and aren’t much like influential folks).

But what do the rest of you see? True, even if you confirm my observation, we might explain it by saying it is just much easier to learn by reading about a topic than about an audience – so direct feedback is better for learning about audiences. But first, let’s get this datum straight.

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On End Of Period Spending

Last week US federal agencies were in a hurry to spend the last of their annual budget. Agencies that don’t spend all of their budget not only don’t get to save it for next year, next year’s budget will likely be reduced by the unspent amount. And the manager sacked. This last minute burst of spending is usually less carefully considered, and less useful, than other spending. (More about it all here.)

This situation is mildly puzzling. Why is not spending all of a budget such a bad sign? If needs and opportunities vary in time, spending that varies in time seems appropriate. Perhaps incompetent managers who just can’t plan induce more spending fluctuations. But is that really so much more likely than varying needs and opportunities? Some say that spending less than budgeted shows an agency “needs” less overall. But any tendency for agencies that sometimes spend less than budget to be less valuable seems to me much weaker than the tendency of last minute spending to be less valuable. So why aren’t bursts of last minute spending seen as just as bad or worse?

One explanation is that we developed habits of judging organizations and managers based on their budget habits in contexts where it was much harder to observe the time pattern of spending than the total amount spent. We developed the social norm of disapproving of unspent budgets in that context, and have been slow to adapt to a world where the time pattern of spending is visible.

A related explanation is while spending more near period end looks bad, there is a less clear bright line to coordinate on to say which time patterns of spending look bad. So while we each privately know last minute spending bursts look bad, we don’t coordinate to say it together.

Perhaps there are other plausible explanations. But one relatively robust conclusion here I think is that the political process can be pretty terrible at coordinating to react to simple easily visible info. It isn’t enough that we can all know something. We have to all know that we can know and then coordinate to switch new social norms, so that we all know that we all expect us all to actually look at this visible info sometimes, and to react in a certain easily verified way to that info.

Not very encouraging for folks who hope that government will finally sit up and notice other kinds of relevant policy info that it has long neglected.

Added 11Oct:

Spending in the last week of the year is 4.9 times higher than the rest-of-the-year weekly average. … Quality scores for year-end projects are 2.2 to 5.6 times more likely to be below the central value. Allowing agencies to roll over unused funding into the subsequent year can improve efficiency. We calibrate a dynamic model of spending and show that allowing rollover leads to welfare gains of up to 13 percent. … The one federal agency that has the ability to roll over unused funding for I.T. projects does not exhibit a year-end spike in spending or drop-off in quality in this category of spending. (more)

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Dark Pain, Dark Joy

We tend to neglect things we cannot see. We focus on visible (Baryonic) matter in the universe, but there is about twenty times as much dark matter and energy that we know almost nothing about. We focus on brain activity which engages the surrounding world, but about twenty times as much brain energy is used by brains at “rest” and apparently doing nothing.

Pain is probably like this too. For some kinds of pain we are very aware, and make sure others around us are aware too. But for other kinds of pain, we don’t let others know, and are often are in denial to ourselves. There may be lots of dark pain around that we rarely see.

Why do we hide and deny pain? Some pain makes us look bad. We’d look weak to complain of pains that many folks put up with without complaining. And when there are norms about what we should want or not want, we can show norm violations by showing that we deeply want things that we should not, or don’t want things that we should.

Aunt Hilda might really bug you when she visits, but you are supposed to love her. A lack of praise from colleagues might really hurt, but you aren’t supposed to be so self-centered. Some norm-violating pain might not so much make you look bad, as make others feel obligated to visibly disapprove, which would then cause problems.

You might think that dark pain doesn’t matter if we have repressed it from our consciousness, since only conscious pain matters. But consciousness isn’t either or, it is a matter of degree, and repressed pain can infect our mood and feelings in many indirect ways. You might think folks in much pain would seek therapy, so there can’t be many of them. But people seek therapy mainly when they feel dysfunctional; those who still function with lots of pain may just solider on.

If most folks have twenty times as much pain as they show, and live lives of quiet desperation, does this make their lives not worth living? Would it be better if they had never existed? Hardly. In addition to dark pain, there may also be dark joy.

Dark joys could be those that make us look bad, or those that violate norms. We can get illicit joy from being acknowledged as high status, or from submitting to those we think worthy of dominating us. We can get joy from the pain and suffering of our rivals. We can enjoy foods that aren’t good for us, or enjoy just being lazy and neglectful of things to which we are supposed to pay attention.

So does dark joy cancel dark pain, adding up to lives about as worthwhile in the dark as they seem in the light? I just don’t know. But it sure seems an important question. As is the question of which lives around us actually have more net joy over pain. To answer such questions, we’ll need to dig deeper into our self-deceptions, and shine light on things usually dark. Seems a noble quest to me. Just don’t expect people to like you for illuminating the things they keep dark.

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The ‘What If Failure?’ Taboo

Last night I heard a  group of smart pundits and wonks discuss Tyler Cowen’s new book Average Is Over. This book is a sequel to his last, The Great Stagnation, where he argued that wage inequality has greatly increased in rich nations over the last forty years, and especially in the last fifteen years. In this new book, Tyler says this trend will continue for the next twenty years, and offers practical advice on how to personally navigate this new world.

Now while I’ve criticized Tyler for overemphasizing automation as a cause of this increased wage inequality, I agree that most of the trends he discusses are real, and most of his practical advice is sound. But I can also see reasonable grounds to dispute this, and I expected the pundits/wonks to join me in debating that. So I was surprised to see the discussion focus overwhelmingly on if this increased inequality was acceptable. Didn’t Tyler understand that losers might be unhappy, and push the political system toward redistribution and instability?

Tyler quite reasonably said yes this change might not be good overall, and yes there might well be more redistribution, but it wouldn’t change the overall inequality much. He pointed out that most losers might be pretty happy with new ways to enjoy more free time, that our last peak of instability was in the 60′s when inequality was at a minimum, that since we have mostly accepted increased inequality for forty years it is reasonable to expect that to continue for another twenty, and that over history inequality has had only a weak correlation with redistribution and instability.

None of which seemed to dent the pundit/wonk mood. They seemed to hold fast to a simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.

I think we see something similar with other trends framed as negatives, like global warming, bigger orgs, or increased regulation. Once such a trend is framed as an official bad thing which public policy might conceivably reduce, it becomes (mildly) taboo to seem to just accept the change and analyze how to deal with its consequences.

All of which seems bad news for my book, which mostly just accepts the “robots take over, humans lose wages and get sidelined” scenario and analyzes its consequences. No matter how good my reasons for thinking politics will fail to prevent this, many will react as did Nikola Danaylov, with outrage at my hostility toward the poor suffering losers.

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Why Think Of The Children?

When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better. For example, if volunteering at a hospital is good, volunteering at a children’s hospital is better. If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better. If teaching people to paint is good, teaching children to paint is better. If promoting healthy diets is good, promoting healthy diets in kids is better. If protecting people from war is good, protecting kids from war is better. If comforting lonely people is good, comforting lonely kids is better.

Why do most idealistic causes seem better when directed at kids? One explanation is that kids count a lot more in our moral calculus, just as humans count more than horses. But most would deny this I think. Another explanation is that kids just consistently need more of everything. But this just seems wrong. Kids are at the healthiest ages, for example, and so need health help the least. Even so, children health is considered a very noble cause.

For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share. This predicts that doing stuff for kids would seem especially moral for foragers. And maybe we’ve retained such habits.

My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others. So to show off the sort of kindness that your audience cares about, you put a higher priority on kindness to kids.

Of course if you happened to be one of those exceptions really trying to just to make the world a better place, why you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them. You’d want to help anyone but kids. And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …

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On Accidental Altruists

Gordon Tullock:

All of us like to think that we are better, more altruistic, more charitable, than we actually are. But, although we have this desire, we don’t want to pay for it. We are willing to make a sacrifice of perhaps 5 percent of our real income in charitable aid to others. We would like to think of ourselves, however, as making much larger transfers without actually making them. One of the functions of the politician in our society is to meet this demand. (more)

Me:

As an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone. (more)

Let me admit it here and now: I am an accidental altruist, driven more by ambition than empathy. I have sought glory by understanding deep mysteries of quantum physics, disagreement, and human hypocrisy, by foreseeing the next great era after ours, and by inventing and deploying new forms of info aggregation in governance.

I happen to believe that such actions will in fact give an unusually large expected benefit to the world. This is because I believe that in our era a great many things go quite wrong because we do not understand ourselves and our future, and because we aggregate info badly. But, I must admit that I might still pursue similar glories even if they gave little benefit. And perhaps even if they created modest harm.

Now it is not a complete accident that our society offers glory to those who improve our governance or deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. Or that more glory often goes to those whose contributions seem more likely to benefit us all. This is a somewhat functional way for a society to coordinate to improve itself. But the credit here should probably go to the slow process of cultural selection, whereby cultures with more functional institutions win out in competition with other cultures.

I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional. And this makes sense to the extent that people use altruism as a signal of niceness. That is, if you use how nice someone is toward the world as a whole as signal of how nice they would treat you as a friend, spouse, colleague, etc., then it makes sense to put less weight on accidental niceness. We accidental altruists probably tend to be less nice.

But if what you wanted was just to encourage more altruism toward the world, I’d think you’d mostly just want to celebrate people more who actually do more good for the world, without caring that much if they are driven more by glory or empathy. Sure, when faced with an option where they might gain glory by hurting the world, such a person might well choose it. But in areas where pursuing glory tends mostly to help the world, my guess is that the world is helped more if we just praise all good done for the world, intend of focusing our praise mainly on those who do good for the purest of reasons. And I think we all pretty much know this.

So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities.

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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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