Category Archives: Signaling

Reply to Gelman

Andrew Gelman disagreed with me Sunday:

Conservatives support low taxes so that those who have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor and earn full respect for it.

I don’t think that showing off is anything like a basic conservative value, beyond the idea that people should feel free to show off if they want to. … Conservatives support low taxes because they think the market is more effective than the government at producing prosperity.

Liberals support gay marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.

Liberals support gay marriage because they don’t think it’s fair that straight people can marry and gays can’t.

His commentators said I meant unconscious strategies, and I said:

This was an attempt to identify the signaling persona behind common ideologies, not the conscious rationalizations people give.

Andrew clarified:

I don’t think signaling is as important as [Robin] does, but I’m pretty sure it’s more important than most of generally assume. … That said, I think his descriptions of conservatives and liberals are so caricatured as to be a hindrance to his thinking.

Monday, Andrew elaborated in a new post:

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Just A Handshake

“Between you and me, my friend, a handshake is enough.”

A recent economics journal article says one might reasonably avoid complex formal contracts to show you trust your associates:

This paper shows how the fear of signaling distrust can endogenously lead to incomplete contractual agreements. We consider a principal agent relationship where the agent may be trustworthy (dedicated to the project) or not. The principal may trust the agent (i.e. have a high belief of facing a trustworthy agent), or distrust him. The proposal of a complete contract, including fines and other explicit incentives, is shown to signal distrust. When trust is important in some non-contractible part of the relationship, a principal may prefer to leave the contract incomplete rather than to signal distrust by proposing a complete contract. Contractual incompleteness arises endogenously due to asymmetric information about how much one partner trusts the other side.

There are literally hundreds of papers out there showing how signaling can or does explain various details of human behavior.  In fact, fifteen years ago my Ph.D. thesis advisor tole me not to write such papers, because there were already so many of them that they weren’t very interesting.

Yet people keep complaining everytime I mention a signaling explanation of something, that I’m too free with such explanations.  So I’m stuck between an academic discipline that considers such explanations too obvious to be worth publishing, and an audience that finds them too implausible to believe, even when backed by such publications.

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Against Admirable Activities, Again

When my kids were young and played a new game, the pattern was clear: If they won, they liked that game and wanted to play it again.  If they lost, they didn't like that game.  Tyler Cowen once told me how this generalizes; the essential question of ideology is: who should be admired?  We tend to think it would be good for the world if policies and culture tilted a bit to more admire the activities that tend to make us look good. 

Such disagreements, however, shouldn't distract us from the fact that societies often agree quite a bit on what kinds of activities they admire.  For example, Frank and Miller's instinctive fear that the love of stuff obtained from distant soulless others corrupts one's soul is ancient.  Greek historian Herodotus ~430BC:

The Egyptians are divided into seven distinct classes—these are, the priests, the warriors, the cowherds, the swineherds, the tradesmen, the interpreters, and the boatmen. … Whether the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians their notions about trade, like so many others, I cannot say for certain. I have remarked that the Thracians, the Scyths, the Persians, the Lydians, and almost all other barbarians, hold the citizens who practice trades, and their children, in less repute than the rest, while they esteem as noble those who keep aloof from handicrafts, and especially honour such as are given wholly to war. These ideas prevail throughout the whole of Greece, particularly among the Lacedaemonians. Corinth is the place where mechanics are least despised.

I'm not exactly sure why traders have been so consistently disliked, though I suspect it has something to do with loyalty signaling.  But I am pretty sure that while societies consistently prefer to encourage more of the activities they admire, such choices often make them on net worse off.  I said two years ago:

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Gottschall’s Gotcha

Jonathan Gottschall reviewing Miller's Spent in Seed:

Miller may have made this final point a bit too well. I was not many pages into Spent before I found myself helplessly attuned to Miller’s own “narcissistic self-displays.” Miller reminds us frequently of his elite education, tells us that he owns several thousand books, lets on about his sophisticated taste in avant-garde art, makes offhand displays of his mastery of musical jargon (“timbral richness,” “isorhythmic motets,” “polyphony”), stresses his impeccable liberal credentials, and shows off his authentic verbal flair, his cosmopolitanism, and his soaring IQ (he argues —tendentiously —that elite university degrees function as covert IQ guarantees). So Spent functions not only as an attempt to popularize a vein of scientific research, but also as a means of selling the audience on the virtues of its creator: Geoffrey Miller—a smart guy, a bit of a Renaissance man.

There are two things to say about this. First, it is Geoffrey Miller, Renaissance man, who gives Spent so much of its winning personality, its narrative tang, and its consistent good humor. Second, Spent cued me in not only to its author’s self-marketing, but also to my own. For what is a book review if not—at least in part—a narcissistic self-display? What am I doing now, if not flaunting my penetration, my learning, my tough-minded yet charitable judgment, and—most narcissistically of all—my ability to take a decade of Miller’s life as a scholar, scientist, and close observer of American pop culture, and wrap it up neatly in a 1,200-word package—complete with an artful, preening flourish at the close?

Jonathan clearly "gets it."  Let me also admit: my blog posts are no doubt also designed, at least unconsciously, to signal my many features.

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Spent = Gold + Schlock

On Sunday I reviewed Frank's Luxury Fever, which advocated taxing "conspicuous" relative to "inconspicuous" consumption.  I noted:

Frank offers no evidence whatsoever that the activities he dislikes and wants to tax in fact cause more inefficient status-seeking than the activities he likes and wants to subsidize.

But soon after I reported on data others have collected on this, and summarized their implications for policy.  This morning I gave the main argument from Geoffrey Miller's new book Spent

  1. Signaling infuses most human activity.
  2. Consumer capitalism marketers trick us into using unreliable signals.
  3. We'd be better off to talk and customize more, and work and buy less.
  4. Laws aren't the answer; let's make better social norms.
  5. Let's also adjust a consumption tax to compensate for side effects.

On point 1, I completely agree; Miller's detail here is golden; spectacular really.  And points 4 and 5 make a lot of sense.  But points 2 and 3 are, alas, schlock.

Frank and Miller seem to dislike pretty much the same activities, but while Frank complains that we use them to "conspicuously" show off, Miller admits pretty much everything we do shows off.  Miller complains instead that showing off via purchases is "redundant" and "misleading" and not as "efficient," "rich," and "unique" as other ways to show off. 

Yet like Frank, Miller offers no evidence whatsoever that the signals he wants to discourage cause more inefficient harm than the signals he wants to encourage.  Specifically, Miller offers no evidence that:

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Spent‘s Main Argument

Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind is probably the one book that has most influenced my thinking.  So I'll honor Miller by taking several posts to discuss his new book, Spent.  Yesterday I reviewed its predecessor, Robert Frank's Luxury Fever.  Today I give Spent's main argument, in Miller's own words:

1) Signaling infuses most human activity:

We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.  We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.  Over the past few million years we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.  Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies. (p75)

2) "Consumer capitalism" marketers trick us into using unreliable signals:

The standard self-display strategy in most developed societies is to seek the highest-paying full-time employment permitted by one's intelligence and personality, and to use the resulting income to buy branded goods and services at full retail price. … As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient. … Almost every other way of acquiring and displaying human artifacts or experiences sends richer signals about one's personal qualities. (p257) …

Buying new, real, branded, premium products at full prices from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option.  If offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product's design provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.  It grows no physical, social, or cultural roots into your local environment.  It does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital.  It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.  It does not lead you to learn more about the invention, manufacture, operation, or maintenance of the things around you. … The alternatives listed above try to minimize retail spending not just to save money, but to maximize trait display power. (p270) …

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Luxury Fever

I'll start discussing Geoffrey Miller's new book Spent soon.  But first let me review its main predecessor: Robert Frank's book Luxury Fever, from 2000. Miller on Frank:

I owe Gad Saad and Robert Frank a great debt for their groundbreaking work. … Frank's reasoning, like mine, is that many purchases function as positional goods that display one's wealth, status, or personality traits rather than yielding true happiness benefits or fitness payoffs to the purchaser. … All my arguments are highly supportive of Robert Frank's proposal for a progressive consumption tax. (p27,312)

Frank begins Luxury Fever complaining about $5000 barbecue grills, whose main purpose he presumes is to show off how much money its owners can spend.  Frank wants to discourage "conspicuous" rather than "inconspicuous" consumption: 

If we all lived in smaller houses, or drove less expensive cars, we could all take more weeks of vacation each year. … Vacations offer the opportunity to see new places, visit with distant relatives and friends, take up a new sport, read books, lie on a beach, hike in the wilderness. ….

The degree to which workers enjoy autonomy and choice with respect to which tasks they do and the manner in which they perform them. … Workers tend to find greater satisfaction in jobs that provide greater opportunities to make use of their skills. … Job satisfaction increases with the variety of tasks workers are called on to perform. … If pay were the same, people would choose safe jobs over risky ones, quiet jobs over noisy ones; jobs with convenient parking over those without; jobs with security over those without; and so on.

What … I call "inconspicuous consumption" – freedom from traffic congestion, time with family and friends, vacation time, and a variety of favorable job characteristics.  In each of the examples discussed, the evidence suggests that subjective well-being will be higher in the society with a greater balance of inconspicuous consumption. 

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We Like Pride

A recent Psychological Science article describes experiments where subjects were randomly induced into either an proud or a neutral mental state, and then worked with a group on solving a problem:

Proud individuals not only took on a dominant role within the group problem-solving task, but also were perceived as the most likeable interaction partners. These findings suggest that pride, when representing an appropriate response to actual performance (as opposed to overgeneralized hubris), constitutes a functional social emotion with important implications for leadership and the building of social capital.

This seems a somewhat odd conclusion to draw, since in this experiment the pride was not an appropriate response to actual performance; it was randomly induced! 

Nevertheless, this does seem to confirm pride as a signal of social status.  We like folks who signal high status, except if they are a rival or we think they are bidding for more status than they can support. 

Added: This NYT article from a month ago reviews this and other pride studies.

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Female Orgasm as Screening

I talk often about "signaling," i.e., acting to show observers one's desirable qualities.  "Screening" is matching actions by observers, who can go out of their way to encourage signaling.  For example, you might insult someone to see how they react to insults.  Similarly, it seems evolution designed orgasms to help human females screen mates:

First suggested by David P. Barash nearly three decades ago, the idea is that orgasm might be a way a woman’s body speaks to her brain, “telling herself” that she has been having sex with a suitable partner—that is, one who is not worried about being displaced by a competitor, who is self-confident and unhurried enough to be satisfying to her.  When Barash was a graduate student more than ten years earlier, he observed that when subordinate male grizzly bears copulate, their heads are constantly swiveling about on the lookout for a dominant male, who, should he encounter a couple in flagrante, will likely dislodge his lesser rival and take its place. Not surprisingly, subordinate males ejaculate very quickly, whereas dominants take their time. …

Research on a large captive group of Japanese macaque monkeys is also suggestive. … During 238 hours of observations in which 240 copulations were observed, female orgasmic responses occurred in 80 (33 percent). Of these orgasms, the highest frequency took place when high-ranking males were copulating with low-ranking females, and the lowest between low-ranking males and high-ranking females.  … Maybe, [female orgasm] is designed to be more than a little hard to get, adaptive precisely because it can’t be too readily summoned, so that when it arrives, it means something. …

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Prestige Matters More For Smarts

There are many kinds of attractive attributes of people.  Some of these attributes, such as height, youth, beauty, or strength, are relatively easy for most anyone to observe.  Other attributes, such as cleverness, insight, or artistic judgment, are harder to observe.  In particular, people who have such hard-to-see attributes can usually better discern those attributes in others. 

If this were the end of it, hard-to-see attributes would just be less valuable, all else equal, in attracting mates and allies.  After all, hard-to-see attributes would then only be useful in attracting people with similar abilities, and those similar others would on average have more options.

But this analysis misses the possibilities of prestige and status.  Social institutions can let people translate their hard-to-see abilities into much easier to see prestige and status.  For example, other smart people might certify you as smart via an award that everyone can see.  So we should expect people whose best abilities are hard-to-see to focus more than most on achieving prestige, while those whose abilities are easier for all to see to focus more on just directly showing off their abilities.

This roughly explains, I think, an important part of the variation in who cares more versus less about degrees, awards, etc.  From a conversation with Helen Yang.

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