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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