Category Archives: Signaling

Choke To Submit?

An old western movie truism (e.g., my fav Unforgiven) says good gunfighters are mainly those calm enough to aim straight.  This may seem trite, but I can attest that a big success factor in life is just being calm enough to do the obvious when it really matters.  A new Review of Economic Studies paper (ungated here) shows humans really do choke:

To test whether very high monetary rewards can decrease performance, we conducted a set of experiments in the U.S. and in India in which subjects worked on different tasks and received performance-contingent payments that varied in amount from small to very large relative to their typical levels of pay. With some important exceptions, very high reward levels had a detrimental effect on performance.

For example, rural Indians paid 4, 40, or 400 Rupees for doing well on a mental task did much worse when paid 400 (above one month's spending). Subjects did worse when they were watched, but better when the task was mostly physical (just pushing keys). 

So why did humans evolve to choke?  And why are we so terrified of, and bad at, public speaking?  And I've heard:

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Signaling in Economics

Arnold Kling cites this interesting suggestion from Michael Strong's book Be The Solution:

The very fact that we have moral impulses to support the public good is necessarily intertwined with the fact that we have moral impulses to punish those who do not (and to punish those who do not punish those who do not, and so on) … This instinct is especially harmful when used to punish those who are perceived not punishing free riders. This is the source of the bigotry against market economics among the do-gooders: It is believed that those who describe the positive outcomes of free enterprise are not doing their job to behave punitively toward free riders, and that therefore they, too, must be punished.

So could economists compensate by going out of our way to punish murderers, rapists, and thieves, since we agree with ordinary folks that these are non-cooperators?  Or will we then be evil for punishing such folks too much?

Arnold goes on to trip over his positivism, leaving his head in the sand:

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New Tech Signals

New tech is usually adopted not for direct productivity gains, but to signal one is in fashion, one is technically capable, etc.  From a Post Oped Tuesday:

President Obama's proposed health-care reforms include investing $50 billion over five years to promote health information technology. Most notably, paper medical records would be replaced with linked electronic records to try to improve quality of care and lower medical costs. The recently enacted stimulus package included $20 billion for health IT. …

Yet while this sort of reform has popular support, there is little evidence that currently available computerized systems will improve care. … Large, randomized controlled studies — the "gold standard" of evidence — in this country and Britain have found that electronic records with computerized decision support did not result in a single improvement in any measure of quality of care for patients with chronic conditions including heart disease and asthma. …

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Wise Pretensions v.0

Followup toPretending to be Wise

For comparison purposes, here's an essay with similar content to yesterday's "Pretending to be Wise", which I wrote in 2006 in a completely different style, edited down slightly (content has been deleted but not added).  Note that the 2006 concept of "pretending to be Wise" hasn't been narrowed down as much compared to the 2009 version; also when I wrote it, I was in more urgent need of persuasive force.

I thought it would be an interesting data point to check whether this essay seems more convincing than yesterday's, following Robin's injuction "to avoid emotion, color, flash, stories, vagueness, repetition, rambling, and even eloquence" – this seems like rather the sort of thing he might have had in mind.

And conversely the stylistic change also seems like the sort of thing Orwell might have had in mind, when Politics and the English Language compared:  "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."  Versus:  "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."  That would be the other side of it.

At any rate, here goes Eliezer2006

I do not fit the stereotype of the Wise. I am not Gandalf, Ged, or Gandhi. I do not sit amidst my quiet garden, staring deeply into the truths engraved in a flower or a drop of dew; speaking courteously to all who come before me, and answering them gently regardless of how they speak to me.

If I tried to look Wise, and succeeded, I would receive more respect from my fellows. But there would be a price.

To pretend to be Wise means that you must always appear to give people the benefit of the doubt. Thus people will admire you for your courtesy. But this is not always true.

To pretend to be Wise, you must always pretend that both sides have merit, and solemnly refuse to judge between them. For if you took one side or another, why then, you would no longer be one of the aloof Wise, but merely another partisan, on a level with all the other mere bickerers.

As one of the Wise, you are omnipotent on the condition that you never exercise your power. Otherwise people would start thinking that you were no better than they; and they would no longer hold you in awe.

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Pretending to be Wise

Followup toAgainst Maturity

"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral."
        — Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert John F. Kennedy, misquoter

A special case of adulthood-signaling worth singling out, is the display of neutrality or suspended judgment, in order to signal maturity, wisdom, impartiality, or just a superior vantage point.

An example would be the case discussed yesterday of my parents, who respond to theological questions like "Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?" with "Oh, when I was your age, I also used to ask that sort of question, but now I've grown out of it."

Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says:  "It doesn't matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it."  Of course it matters who started the fight.  The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, he should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch.  Let a parent try punching the principal, and we'll see how far "It doesn't matter who started it" gets in front of a judge.  But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it, it is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.

A similar dynamic, I believe, governs the occasions in international diplomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smaller groups to stop that fighting right now.  It doesn't matter to the Great Power who started it – who provoked, or who responded disproportionately to provocation – because the Great Power's ongoing inconvenience is only a function of the ongoing conflict.  Oh, can't Israel and Hamas just get along?

This I call "pretending to be Wise".  Of course there are many ways to try and signal wisdom.  But trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses – refusing to sum up evidence – refusing to pass judgment – refusing to take sides – staying above the fray and looking down with a lofty and condescending gaze – which is to say, signaling wisdom by saying and doing nothing – well, that I find particularly pretentious.

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Against Maturity

I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism.  It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer.  It was in Hebrew.  We were given a transliteration, but not a translation.  I asked what the prayer meant.  I was told that I didn't need to know – so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words.  (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)

Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was.  So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me.  They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."

They were right about that last part, anyway.

Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning.  They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid.  I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.

My father shot me down flat.  (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me.  This seems to have worked out just fine.  He did buy me books, though.)

But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older."  He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math.  He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was.  He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.

You see the pattern developing here.  "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification.  They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me.  And it gets worse…

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Cynical About Cynicism

I'm cynical about cynicism.  I don't believe that most cynicism is really about knowing better.  When I see someone being cynical, my first thought is that they're trying to show off their sophistication and assert superiority over the naive.  As opposed to, say, sharing their uncommon insight about not-widely-understood flaws in human nature.

There are two obvious exceptions to this rule.  One is if the speaker has something serious and realistic to say about how to improve matters.  Claiming that problems can be fixed will instantly lose you all your world-weary street cred and mark you as another starry-eyed idealistic fool.  (Conversely, any "solution" that manages not to disrupt the general atmosphere of doom, does not make me less skeptical:  "Humans are evil creatures who slaughter and destroy, but eventually we'll die out from poisoning the environment, so it's all to the good, really.")

No, not every problem is solvable.  But by and large, if someone achieves uncommon insight into darkness – if they know more than I do about human nature and its flaws – then it's not unreasonable to expect that they might have a suggestion or two to make about remedy, patching, or minor deflection.  If, you know, the problem is one that they really would prefer solved, rather than gloom being milked for a feeling of superiority to the naive herd.

The other obvious exception is for science that has something to say about human nature.  A testable hypothesis is a testable hypothesis and the thing to do with it is test it.  Though here one must be very careful not to go beyond the letter of the experiment for the sake of signaling hard-headed realism:

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The Evolutionary-Cognitive Boundary

I tend to draw a very sharp line between anything that happens inside a brain and anything that happened in evolutionary history.  There are good reasons for this!  Anything originally computed in a brain can be expected to be recomputed, on the fly, in response to changing circumstances.

Consider, for example, the hypothesis that managers behave rudely toward subordinates "to signal their higher status".  This hypothesis then has two natural subdivisions:

If rudeness is an executing adaptation as such – something historically linked to the fact it signaled high status, but not psychologically linked to status drives – then we might experiment and find that, say, the rudeness of high-status men to lower-status men depended on the number of desirable women watching, but that they weren't aware of this fact.  Or maybe that people are just as rude when posting completely anonymously on the Internet (or more rude; they can now indulge their adapted penchant to be rude without worrying about the now-nonexistent reputational consequences).

If rudeness is a conscious or subconscious strategy to signal high status (which is itself a universal adapted desire), then we're more likely to expect the style of rudeness to be culturally variable, like clothes or jewelry; different kinds of rudeness will send different signals in different places.  People will be most likely to be rude (in the culturally indicated fashion) in front of those whom they have the greatest psychological desire to impress with their own high status.

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Beware Ideal Screen Theories

Variable B "screens" variable A from variable C when learning the value of B makes A and C no longer dependent on one another; once you know B, A says nothing about C.   Screening is a useful concept, but we are often over eager to apply it.  For example:

Mood Swings – Since your internal state must pass through time, you know that in the absence of outside influences, your state today can only depend on your state two days ago via the intermediary of your state yesterday.  So if something bad happened to you two days ago, but yesterday you felt fine, you might conclude you are over it; that bad event can't hurt your mood today unless it causes some new outside influence on you.  Alas, your mood only summarizes a small part of your internal state.  What happened two days ago can pop up and bother you today, even if yesterday you were fine. 

Disagreement – When someone disagrees with you, you should wonder what they know that you do not. They might explain their reasons for their differing belief, i.e., their evidence and analysis, and you might hear and ponder those reasons and yet find that you still disagree.  In this case you might feel that the fact that they disagree no longer informs you on this topic; the reasons for their belief screen their belief from informing your belief.  And yes, if they could give you all their reasons, that would be enough.  But except in a few extremely formal contexts, this is not even remotely close to being true.  We are usually only aware of a small fraction of the relevant evidence and analysis that influences our beliefs.   Disagreement is problematic, even after you've exchanged reasons.

Evolved Betrayal – We take actions that influence people around us, and we wonder how blameworthy we are regarding those actions.  We know evolution shaped our minds to promote our selfish genetic interests relative to others, but we'd like to feel we can ignore that fact when we are consciously aware of positive intentions toward them.  If our conscious intentions toward others were our only evolution-influenced mental factors which change our behavior toward others, this would be correct; intentions would screen evolved selfishness from our behavior.  Alas, this seems quite unlikely.  Our minds are very complex, and a great many processes influence each choice we make, processes about which we are mostly unaware. 

For example, if we take an action that gives us selfish benefits, and if our minds saw clues with enough info to feasibly identify that selfish action, the fact that we had no conscious awareness of intending to achieve that selfish benefit should offer little reassurance.  It is a good bet that our mind was influenced by this selfish benefit, as well as by the impressions others might get from seeing such a selfish action.  You can hurt the ones you love, on "purpose."

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Signaling Math

It has been two years since I posted a summary of how signaling works; recent discussions suggest maybe I should try again.  Be warned; this time I'll use more math.

Consider authors who must choose a level of emotion e for their writing, given their propaganda factor p, which says how much they care about persuading readers, relative to informing readers.  Assume that authors prefer to be perceived by readers has having low propaganda p, and that everyone knows that m is the maximum possible value of p.  

Assume authors maximize a utility,

U(e;p) = -0.5(e-p)2 – E[p|e] ,

where E[p|e] is the reader estimate of author propaganda p, after having observed author emotion e.  The first term says emotion is more useful for propaganda authors, but the second term says using more emotion may tip off readers to such author intentions.

If readers already knew author propaganda p, signaling would not be an issue, and authors would just choose e = p.   However, if readers do not fully know author propaganda factor p, then if readers always make exactly the rational inference from observing emotion levels e, and if authors always exactly maximize their utility given this reader behavior (and if we use standard game theory refinements), then the equilibrium satisfies

p = e + 1 – exp(e-m) .

The worst possible author with p = m chooses e = p, just as if signaling were not an issue.  But all other authors choose e < p, asymptotically approaching e = p – 1.  The choice of emotion e fully reveals propaganda p, and everyone but the worst possible type p = m uses less emotion than they would if signaling were not an issue.

So when I suggest that the reason engineers, lawyers, accountants, and academics try to avoid emotion is that they want to be believed by skeptical readers, it is not enough to argue that someone concerned only with imparting as much info as possible to trusting readers would use lots more emotion than such authors do.  The whole point is that reader trust cannot be assumed.

(Note the equilibrium above applies for any info readers have about author propoganda p, as long as their posterior given that info has support up to m.)

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