Exploration As Status

I was puzzled to hear Paul Graham say:

Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

So last week I asked:

This has some intuitive appeal, but it is puzzling – why exactly would learning that the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more about that world?  Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality? 

Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts also posed this question to their readers, and all of the thoughtful comments have persuaded me to a new signaling view.

I now hypothesize that humans evolved to signal confidence via their willingness to explore, both physically and mentally.  When life is harsh and dangerous, you can not afford to explore much.  When you honestly fear for your safety and sanity, it makes sense to hunker down turtle-like and avoid unnecessary risks.  If on the other hand your life is relatively comfortable and safe, and you want to signal this to observers, you can show how willing you are to explore.  You can explore by visiting new places, meeting new people, trying new types of food or culture, and talking about new ideas.

In fact, through history the rich and high status have been keen to show their willingness to explore, including via education. Furthermore, by protecting kids from certain harsh realities, parents could mislead kids and induce them to exude a confident willingness to explore that marked them all the more clearly as pampered elites.  Of course certain dangerous areas needed to be kept out of exploration bounds, even as overconfident kids believed no such boundaries were needed.  And as society became richer everyone was eager to seek status by mimicking these elite behaviors. 

So yes we keep our kids innocent of brutality so they will learn more, but not because such learning is especially useful.  The point is just to learn whatever kids not rich enough to be cocooned from harsh realities would not be as willing to learn.  Just as rich kids’ smooth skin shows they have not worked long hard hours in the harsh sun, our kids’ innocence shows they were are rich enough to be protected from harsh social realities.  Conspicuous consumption continues.

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  • Interesting hypothesis. I think there’s good truth to it.
    I randomly booked tickets to a place where I hadn’t been ( mostly because they were cheap) and then told people about it.
    Part of me has booked the tickets because i truly want to explore, the other part i suppose is just signalling…

  • spindizzy

    “And as society became richer everyone was eager to seek status by mimicking these elite behaviors.”

    So you are suggesting that not only do all humans seek status, but that all humans measure status in the same way?

    I have a feeling that if you asked 50 random people to name a position of high status, the answer “post-graduate” would be rather less common than “sports star” or even “drug baron”.

    “our kids’ innocence shows they were are rich enough to be protected from harsh social realities.”

    As a contentious example: is someone who tries to get a good education really less in touch with “harsh social realities” than someone who leaves school at 16 to father a couple of kids?

  • A “traveloholic” friend will admit in confessional conversations that “status effects” (signaling and opportunities to befriend high-status people) are a central part of the attraction. She became for example demoralized when after the drop in the price of air travel in the 1980s, she started to overhear people who look and sound lower class talk of traveling to exotic locations.

  • nick

    I think your hypothesis maybe a good generalization. Certainly seems that way here in africa.

  • Swimmy

    You’ve just come up with a great new theory for what makes videogames compelling.

  • This explanation seems unrealistically internalist about signaling. The best way to “evolve to signal confidence” to do something under some set of conditions is simply to develop the confidence to do it under those conditions. (And it’s clear enough what selective advantages such constrained confidence would confer.) To postulate a motivation to “signal” therefore seems otiose.

  • Spin, the idea of commonly accepted sorts of social status is very well established in sociology. And yes school does obscure harsh social realities.

    Q, I’m not talking about signaling as a conscious motivation.

  • It seems like a particular instance of two more general theories – that organisms engage in risky behaviour to display their skill, and expensive behaviour to display their wealth.

  • It’s an interesting idea. I think one role of encouraging people to take exploration risks is that even though it may be a bad idea for them personally, it’s good for the group as a whole (and sometimes for elites in particular, for non-elites to take risks that would otherwise be irrational). For example, using one’s resources to start a technology company, where a multi-million dollar pay-off may not be for 10 or more years. For an individual, it most often seems more rational to just get a job that provides the best steady income one can, and then invest your income in a well-diversified portfolio of stocks in tobacco, alcohol, lingerie, lumber, and motel chain companies (companies that perhaps don’t do much to advance society technologically in the 21st century). Most of the people that go the start-up route will fail, and may end up behind those that went the steady income route. But the process that results in a few succeeding may do more to generate wealth for society as a whole (or elites in particular) than if all or most of the start-up entrepreneurs had gone the route of safe employment and investment.

  • Ryan M Daza

    During my undergraduate, studying anthropology, I announced some discontent to my archeology professor after visiting Aztec and Mayan dig-sites in Mexico. It concerned my new identity as international superstar and the lowly tourists. My professor’s solution was to crown me with a new group identity: “We are travelers Ryan, not tourists.” Mmmm…elitism, can’t live with, can’t travel without it. It wasn’t until I had some gaduate economics education (status?) that I realized (observed when TRAVELING in Jamaica) and symphasized with the plight of the tourist. WIthout some cultural education, it is hard and expensive to manuver though a foreign environment in order to get what you want. It is also expensive for others to deal or depend on you adding the fact that this ignorance can signal vulnerability, even unconsciously (that burnt guy with the map). The Solution? SANDALS BEACHES! Its cheaper and safer for tourist who are time poor and cash rich. Still, I felt smug in my $10/day bungalow with my transaction cost reducing capabilities the same way a janitor does with is massive set of noisy keys.

    I will content that NOT be an exploer yeilds a higher status position. Travelors (Roma) have been identified with costly characteristics that imply uncertainty, untrustworthyness, and irrational risk. Groups (esp. categorial groups like nations which hold diverse sets of interests) have developed laws/norms (sancions) that prevent members from fraternizing/fornicating (foreign trade-Jim Crow-gay marriage), deviating towards (liberalism), or developing esoteric techniques (numbers) whether cultural or technological. The sedintary, not the ephemeral, hold the status — bigotry and xenophobia are not irrational and can really pay out for some.

    [See the history numbers where overtly efficient institutions were held at bay]

  • Alan

    “When life is harsh and dangerous, you can not afford to explore much. When you honestly fear for your safety and sanity, it makes sense to hunker down turtle-like and avoid unnecessary risks. If on the other hand your life is relatively comfortable and safe, and you want to signal this to observers, you can show how willing you are to explore….”

    This social evolutionary idea does make intuitive sense, but I think there are some strands to the argument that need to be acknowledged, and perhaps disentangled. Are we talking about physical evolution or cultural evolution since the industrial revolution. Hunter-gatherer societies are not thought to have done much in the way of hunkering down. For that, wouldn’t we have to go back about 10,000 years or so to the dawn of agriculture and the societal groups it generated?

    One counterargument, equally plausible in my view, is that our ancestors intensified exploration more under adverse conditions. If you accept the widely embraced thesis that our earliest societies were comprised of hunter-gatherers, then the counterargument follows. Just when would you expect hunting raids and internecine warfare to become more intense, during periods of complacency and plenty or extreme hardship? Well, one cannot be sure a priori. So this begs the question of how much exploration is undertaken out of sheer boredom, how much out of necessity, and how much out of conspicuous consumption?

    Coming at this issue from a much different angle and scale, might observations of the actions and reactions of the lowly aplysia have any light to shed on human desire and aversion? I’m thinking here of the Nobel work done by E. Kandel. And are we being unnecessarily anthropocentric in our thinking? Take, for instance, young bear cubs who undertake exploration of their surroundings usually within range of their mother. In short, I respectfully think that the problem at hand has to be defined a bit more narrowly in order to yield testable hyptheses.

  • My, you sure liked that Paul Graham column. Most of his stuff is about startups, but another you might like is “What you can’t say” . Its theme (but less so its ideas) are similar to “Belief like clothes”.

  • Frank Hirsch

    Alan mentions what is in my mind, too. Exploration is risk-taking. Our basic motivations are the two big Fs – Feeding and F___ing. If both is readily available, why take a risk? Full bellies cause indolence – empty bellies cause revolution. I think one of the basic driving forces in humans is discontention, so I am somewhat bewildered right now. I’ll have to think about this.

  • I’m no convinced by any of the explanations yet of why parents like their kids to be innocent, Paul Graham’s included. I think it’s simpler than that.

    I’ll start by stating a few facts I think we can all agree on:

    As Graham points out, most parents (and many other people) respond to innocence. They don’t just like their kids to be innocent, they like their innocent kids.He says “We’re programmed to like certain kinds of helplessness.”

    One might, in a very detached analytical way, consider that response a sort of appetite. But it’s a specific subtype of appetite, one whose object is not interchangeable with other similar ones, even others that a priori would be interchangeable. Other interpersonal appetites are like that too, for instance our appetites for friendship and for romance.

    Now the simplistic model of appetite, “Feel hunger, eat food, no longer feel hunger” may describe how it is for insects, but understates most people’s behaviors. Real people do more with their appetites than just directly satisfy them. For instance, (using hunger as the archetype of an appetite) many people visit restaurants whose prices exceed even the most convenient of convenience foods at the supermarket. They stay at the restaurant not much longer than it takes to finish their meal, so other factors such as ambiance are clearly subordinate to servicing their hunger. But they pay a premium to service it in a particular way.

    There are many aspects to people’s choices dealing with their own appetites, but the one that I want to apply here is phenomenon of whetting one’s own appetite. That is, deliberately making one’s appetite more intense with the expectation of presently satisfying it. For instance, (using hunger again) people enjoy the aroma of food even when they are not quite ready to eat. In a simple “hunger/eat/no hunger” model, this should be a frustrating experience. But it isn’t – unless of course there is no prospect of presently eating the food.

    With me so far?

    My suggestion, as you may guess, is that parents’ motive in wanting their kids to be innocent is a form of this behavior: They are in effect whetting their own response to their child’s innocence. I am not neccessarily saying this is unhealthy or selfish. I am also not implying that the satisfaction they seek is episodic like hunger is. Interpersonal appetites have a more long-term sort of timing, ISTM.

    Under this theory, it is no mystery why parents (and non-parents) would be vicariously saddened when others’ kids lack innocence, but (parents only) be more deeply concerned by their own kids’ lack of it. Under a signalling theory, parents should not be concerned that others’ kids lack innocence, they should be happy since others’ kids’ lack makes their own offsprings’ signals more effective. Under my theory, in the first case the appetite goes unsatisfied in a peripheral way, but in the second case it goes unsatisfied with regard to its primary object (or one of its primary objects if one has more than one child)

    PS: Why is the spam filter flagging me lately?

  • “I now hypothesize that humans evolved to signal confidence via their willingness to explore, both physically and mentally.”

    Seems more like signaling status than confidence.

  • John

    This is similar to something I read about studies done on baby rats. Baby rats that were removed to another cage for five minutes every day by a researcher grew up to be more confident than the ones that weren’t. After a bunch more experiments, the researchers discovered that it was because the mother rats would lick them and comfort them when they returned. (retold badly from this book)

    I don’t think signalling has much to do with it. For neurological reasons, fear and curiosity are largely incompatible. A parent wants his or her child to grow up with just the right mix, depending on the environment. Usually this doesn’t require any special effort, because a fearful parent will not comfort their child much, causing their child to become fearful.

  • Hopefully, yes group selection pressures might prefer signaling equilibria with group benefits.

    Alan, individuals within hunter-gather societies most certainly do hunker down.

    Tom, the question is why like innocent kids. And signaling does not predict that you care nothing for the success of your associates’ kids.

    Contributor, confidence is a signal of status.

  • Oleg

    This theory sure makes a lot of sense to me but one thing doesn’t add up: if overprotected children are a sign of one’s status, why are there numberous laws that enforce protection of other people’s kids? i.e. social services, restricted access to playgrounds, car seats, bike helmets, zero-tolerance policies in schools, etc etc

    If having sheltered kids was a signal of status, the elites would want to make sure unwashed masses do _not_ display the signal reliably. Signal _enforcement_ makes no immediate sense to me. How do you explain it?

  • Oleg, perhaps levels of status. Elites seem to me want to differentiate themselves more from the middle status than they want to differentiate themselves from the masses. Superelites seem to want to differentiate themselves more from the elites, etc. There are races (speed, not ethnic) between higher status and slightly lower status to differentiate vs. to conflate subpopulations. Then there are rival elites without clear status relative to each other, that are vested in popular acceptance that theirs is the preferred heirarchical standard. So I think it makes these types of signallings can be messy, entangled, and evolving, particularly in more open societies such as ours.

    More specifically to your post, Oleg, I don’t think all “elites” signal status with sheltered kids. Nor do I think elites are so powerful that they can block the middle classes from attempting to conflate with them by adopting a status signal used by elites. A significant portion of elites use “meritocratic” competition of certain types as the primary status signal, and status competition with each other. The only group possibly more elite (although I think they may be more of a rival elite than a higher status elite) than that seems to use helping their offspring become pop stars as a status signaller. The former group is probably exemplified by Chelsea Clinton, with her gold-plated resume (McKinsey! Hedge fund! Masters Degree!). The latter group is probably exemplified by Paris Hilton.

    Those are some more of my thoughts on this interesting topic.

  • Tom, the question is why like innocent kids.

    That seems to describe 2 different questions: Why do we prefer kids’ be innocent, and why do we respond to innocence.

    They are not the same thing. Some things we respond to but prefer to avoid. For instance, we may respond to appeals for help and other begging, yet prefer to avoid experiencing the appeals. (Here I’m talking about voluntary responses, and more generally responses that people wouldn’t prefer to be otherwise)

    I think we are talking about the first question; in any case, that is what I answered. I didn’t answer about exploration and status because I don’t find the theory relating innocence to exploration plausible in the first place. IMO Graham took a wrong turn at that point.

    And signaling does not predict that you care nothing for the success of your associates’ kids.

    It predicts that you would prefer that others not send a competing signal, so that ceteri paribus you would prefer that others’ kids not have the innocence that we presumed sent the valuable signal.

    Of course you could introduce an additional independent assumption of concern for your associates’ kids as a countervailing factor. It’s not an Occam-friendly assumption. You’d lose Occam points for it.

    PS: “TypePad’s antispam filter” seems to be flagging everything I write as “potential comment spam.” Why?

  • Is everything we do related to status and signalling?

    Trace a day in your life and see how much of it is signalling. Take a shower ( clean oneself and signal freshness and cleanliness), healthy breakfast ( or otherwise – both will signal something), go to work ( ultimate status signal), have a beer after work ( signal prosperity, etc).

    Writing on this blog ( trying to signal that I’m smart – maybe failing at it!).

  • Tom we have many other reasons to think that we care for our associates. And I have no idea why your comments are flagged.

  • Ben Hyink

    “When you honestly fear for your safety and sanity, it makes sense to hunker down turtle-like and avoid unnecessary risks.”

    I’m not sure this premise applies in many real-world situations. In many places where life is harsh and treated as cheap people frequently choose to take completely unnecessary risks for a variety of reasons, from status-seeking to boredom to fatalistic beliefs or any combination of such reasons. For example, promiscuity and high-volume/low-investment reproductive behavior trends that resemble those of animals with short lifespans persists in HIV ravaged nations despite awareness of the high likelihood that engaging such behavior is likely to prove fatal.

    The risks may taken may tend to be less intellectual but they are significant and sometimes involve travel or adventure beyond familiar contexts, e.g. moving from relative poverty to management of a highly profitable but risky transnational drug dealing operation. People inclined to act in a “leadership” capacity, at any level of sophistication (intellectuals and academicians to street gang leaders and tribal chiefs), seem to be inclined to seek out or accept completely unnecessary risks.

  • I’m surprised I haven’t been able to find a general journal on status or hierarchy, or a recent overview textbook on those topics. This is the closest I found, a recent book (2008) by an academic (Polodny) that claims to provide an overview/general theory of how status signalling effects economic decision-making. I’m curious if Robin or any other commenters have read it?


  • Ben, I’m not saying everyone in a poor society avoids all risks. The key word is “unnecessary” – as you note leaders tend to take unnecessary risks, which my theory predicts as a way to signal their relative strength.