Authentic Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • I think part of the problem is that you often offer signalling explanations outside of a clear context that would indicate how an explanation for behavior should be interpreted. For instance, I suspect in many economic contexts it is apparent to the reader that the author is merely claiming a certain regularity (whenever such and such conditions obtain we should expect to see such and such behavior).

    So yes, I agree that you are correct that part of the reason people push on this with signalling explanations is because of the kind of norms you mention. However, its not necessarily that its about feeling accused merely that it provides another plausible explanation as to why someone might introduce a signalling explanation (e.g. to call out the behavior as bad or inauthentic) which introduces some degree of genuine confusion about what you are claiming.

    Though, without more concrete examples of both the claims you make and the other claims you see in academia you see as comparable I’m not very confident in this response.

    • Paul Rain


  • This is in part because I’m inclined to give people less of a moral or legal pass on the harms resulting from their behaviors of they did not consciously intend such consequences.

    I agree there. (See “Free Will and Legal Intent: Consequences of a Myth’s Demise” – [Emphasis on second to last paragraph.]

    Disagree, however, that the conscious – unconscious distinction here lacks scientific importance, at least if my intuitions are correct that conscious signaling is a near-mode process, whereas unconscious signaling is far-mode.

  • Guest

    Now of course the question is, are these people more interested in avoiding an accusation of conscious signaling, doing so consciously?

  • I think it is more of a language issue with signaling being active and implying volition while a more passive term like aspect or attribute wouldn’t be seen as this, so it is more an assumption. Though you may not be concerned with whether it is conscious, you are concerned with making us conscious of it or you wouldn’t address it in the first place.

  • Seems to me you’re exhibiting attribution bias. Your own behavior is based on the context it exists in — the situation in the world today dictates that you say things in this way and that you post in a certain manner. But those other people are responding based on their inherent traits and worldview.

    That’s an attribution bias. Those other people would say they are forced by their situation to respond in the way they do, and they’d probably accuse you of responding based on your inherent traits and worldview.

  • Michael Vassar

    I think it’s interesting to know whether there is any ‘moral-patient-character’ associated with an action, e.g. would we be loosing some of the experiential content of the human experience if we did away from it. OTOH, that’s far from my top priority.

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  • arch1

    “My best guess is that what is going on here is that our social norms disapprove mildly of consciously intended signaling.”

    Yes, and I think this is because consciously intended signaling is a (generally) mild form of cheating, something which humans have an evolved tendency to pay close negative attention to.

  • Stefan Schubert

    Agree with this and particular with the last paragraph, which is important. People who, eg systematically but unconsciously interpret evidence in their own favour should by and large not be given a pass.

  • If you are high status, others care about your views on wide range of topics. If low status, hard to get them to listen even on the topics on which you are most expert. So folks often express opinions on many topics, to try to seem high status.

    While I agree that this is the right type of explanation, we need to look at alternatives. This explanation is somewhat plausible, but would expressing opinions have contributed to status in prehistoric forager bands – where it isn’t possible to successfully pretend to high status?

    Thinking along the lines of The Enigma of Reason, I suggest the hypothesis that humans, for whom deliberation and argument is a major survival skill, form numerous opinions as a method of play, whose function is the practice of an essential skill. We form opinions to become good arguers.

    • I disagree with the claim that foragers couldn’t use their behavior to influence perceptions of their status.

  • At the beginning you imagine a critic who says we don’t need distal causes, rebutting him to argue that we should be able to discuss distal ones without emphasizing *obvious* proximate ones. But then you end up arguing against the need to clarify proximate causes in highly non-obvious situations. I think you should mention both. This helps communicates the empirical truth *and* it help people improve their behavior.

    I don’t understand why you think clarifying that these motivations often aren’t conscious is such a burden. It takes 5 seconds. Part of the process of teaching is to spend additional time on the part most likely to be misunderstood, even if those misunderstandings are defensive. If I was teaching that Irish people had higher rates of liver failure and I knew that this was due to liver genes, but that my audience would assume it was due to drinking, and that the Irish would react defensively, I wouldn’t refuse to clarify this or bemoan the necessity. I would just clarify it. The fact that you feel compelled to mention your normative views on unconsciousness-as-a-defense is a weak signal that you’re not optimizing for teaching effectiveness.

    Further, knowing that many of these forces are unconscious or semi-conscious helps people improve themselves. If they think you’re arguing that they are blatant conscious hypocrites, they will internally introspect and correctly observe that this is false. But if they know it’s likely un- or semi-conscious, they can more closely scrutinize patterns in their own behavior. You say you don’t think the unconsciousness of motivations is much of an excuse, and I partially agree, but I also think you stand to gain more professionally by being shocking and then retreating to a bailey than you do helping people improve themselves.

    • I disagree that it would take only 5 seconds. The degree of conscious awareness of various consequences of behavior varies greatly by person and context. So it is hard to estimate4, and even harder to collect evidence to convince others of your estimate. Which is of course why economists usually skip the topic.

      • I don’t think you need to estimate degree of conscious awareness, just say you’re talking strictly about the behavioral response and you’re unsure how much is conscious versus unconscious. I think economists (and psychologists) can skip it because someone taught them this idea in the past.

  • The reasons people eat and drink are different from people’s reasons for eating and drinking. Duh.

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  • we eat food and drink water because without nutrition and fluids we would starve and dehydrate.

    Yes, the “because” relates to function. An explanation by function is often a deeper explanation than one that describes the proximal mechanism – or the motive!

    I don’t think you would say the our eating and drinking is motivated by avoiding starvation and dehydration. In any even, I think it would be erroneous. (Function is greater than motivation.) Yet the Amazon description of the Elephant book says, “The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is ‘the elephant in the brain.'”

    You (or whoever wrote this) invites the belief that you are talking about motives (whether conscious or not) rather than about function.