Category Archives: Signaling

Cynicism in Ev-Psych (and Econ?)

Though I know more about the former than the latter, I begin to suspect that different styles of cynicism prevail in evolutionary psychology than in microeconomics.

Evolutionary psychologists are absolutely and uniformly cynical about the real reason why humans are universally wired with a chunk of complex purposeful functional circuitry X (e.g. an emotion) – we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness in the ancestral environment, full stop.

Evolutionary psychologists are mildly cynical about the environmental circumstances that activate and maintain an emotion.  For example, if you fall in love with the body, mind, and soul of some beautiful mate, an evolutionary psychologist would like to check up on you in ten years to see whether the degree to which you think your mate's mind is still beautiful, correlates with independent judges' ratings of how physically attractive that mate still is.

But it wouldn't be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don't really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment.

Robin, on the other hand, often seems to think that this general type of cynicism is the default explanation and that anything else bears a burden of proof – why suppose an explanation that invokes a genuine virtue, when a selfish desire will do?

Of course my experience with having deep discussions with economists mostly consists of talking to Robin, but I suspect that this is at least partially reflective of a difference between the ev-psych and economic notions of parsimony.

Ev-psychers are trying to be parsimonious with how complex of an adaptation they postulate, and how cleverly complicated they are supposing natural selection to have been.

Economists… well, it's not my field, but maybe they're trying be parsimonious by having just a few simple motives that play out in complex ways via consequentialist calculations?

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Informers and Persuaders

Suppose we lived in this completely alternate universe where nothing in academia was about status, and no one had any concept of style.  A universe where people wrote journal articles, and editors approved them, without the tiniest shred of concern for what "impression" it gave – without trying to look serious or solemn or sophisticated, and without being afraid of looking silly or even stupid.  We shall even suppose that readers, correspondingly, have no such impressions.

In this simpler world, academics write papers from only two possible motives:

First, they may have some theory of which they desire to persuade others; this theory may or may not be true, and may or may not be believed for virtuous reasons or with very strong confidence, but the writer of the paper desires to gain adherents for it.

Second, there will be those who write with an utterly pure and virtuous love of the truthfinding process; they desire solely to give people more unfiltered evidence and to see evidence correctly added up, without a shred of attachment to their or anyone else's theory.

People in the first group may want to signal membership in the second group, but people in the second group only want their readers to be well-informed.  In any case, to first order we must suppose that none of this is about signaling – that all such motives are just blanked out.

What do journal articles in this world look like, and how do the Persuaders' articles differ from the Informers'?

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Against Propaganda

Communications we read or see produce four kinds of changes in our beliefs:

  • Random – uncorrelated with much else of interest,
  • Info – more correlated with the world as it is, vs. as it might be,
  • Persuasion – more correlated with beliefs authors prefer us to have, and
  • Other – correlations with anything else of interest.

When choosing what to read (or see) how carefully, many of us prefer info to persuasion, and weakly dislike random and other changes. So we watch for signals indicating lots of info relative to persuasion. In contrast, readers who prefer persuasion over info seek signals indicating their favored mixture.

For example, consider contexts where people reaffirm their religious and patriotic allegiances, where coaches inspire teams or warriors inspire troops, or where "inspirational" speakers persuade folks to stick to their diets, try harder to succeed in their careers, or hold out for their romantic ideals. In such propaganda contexts, impressive charismatic leaders tend to speak in simple repetitive eloquent poetic vague emotional language, often with rambling structures, engaging stories, vivid colorful flashy emotional music and visual aids, and artistic impressive comforting communal surroundings.

In contrast, when possibly-hostile and expert critics are addressed by lawyers supporting clients, engineers presenting designs, accountants presenting financial accounts, or academics presenting analyses, styles are more "no-nonsense."  They avoid colorful flashy emotional visual aids and music, use precise concise technical and unemotional language, make structured and standardized arguments, explicitly summarize and address opposing views, make methods and premises explicit, and warn early of conclusions and structures.

These differing styles occur not just because differing communication contexts have differing style requirements, but also because authors try to credibly signal their intentions. Authors who want to be seen as minimizing the propaganda element of their communications avoid using flashy styles, eloquent language, or compelling stories, even when such things would make it easier for readers to assimilate the presented info. After all, readers who cannot easily see that deviating from the usual non-nonsense style here actually promotes info may think worse of them.  One must furthermore worry about being quoted out of context by hostile parties.

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Show-Off Bias

It seems to me that self-identified smart people are biased towards complex or counter-intuitive answers to problems.  The reason is simple: complex or counter-intuitive answers allow one to show off intelligence.  So let’s call this bias “show off bias.”

Axelrod’s Tit-For-Tat may provide a good example of show off bias.  Tit-For-Tat is a simple decision algorithm for an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In deciding whether to cooperate or defect, Tit-For-Tat states: just do whatever the other person previously did.  If the other cooperated, you cooperate.  If the other defected, you defect.  Tit-For-Tat. 

The algorithm works surprisingly well.  Wikipedia tells me that “tit for tat was the most effective, winning in several annual automated tournaments against (generally far more complex) strategies created by teams of computer scientists, economists, and psychologists.”

Why didn’t these smart scientists think of Tit-For-Tat?  They probably did, or could have.  But something made Tit-For-Tat unattractive to them.  I’m suggesting that part of what made Tit-For-Tat unattractive was a smart person’s natural desire to show off.

Let me relate two other possible examples of show off bias: one well known, and one personal.  I’ll begin with the personal anecdote.

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Christmas Signaling

Why don't we give each other cash for Christmas?  Your employer pays you cash instead of grocery carts full of stuff because you know what you want better than they do; why doesn't that go for gifts as well?

The usual answer is your Christmas gift is a signal, not just of your willingness to sacrifice cash for them, but also of how well you know them, to know what they want.  But if so then why do we often make and distribute Christmas wish lists?   Doesn't handing our free answer sheets defeat the purpose of testing them on how well they know us?

One answer might be that the gift receiver is like a teacher leaking answers to students to raise her teacher rating – maybe the gift receiver cares more that third parties think her gift givers know her well, than that they actually know her well.  But in this case wouldn't she be trying to hide the fact that she passed around a wish list?  If everyone who sees her get a gift was shown the wish list, who could she be fooling?

Could it all be an elaborate show so that she can honestly tell other folks that she got things she wanted?  But if so wouldn't she be terribly embarrassed if they learned she gave out a wish list?  That just doesn't ring true to me; what else could be going on?

Added: Registering for wedding gifts is a clearer puzzle; all are fully aware of the list, the list is very specific, and recipients don't save on shopping time/trouble, as they had to pick out the gifts. 

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Hated Because It Might Work

Imagine someone who wanted their body dumped into an active volcano when they died, in order to really be one with Earth.  Even if this cost tens of thousands of dollars, few people would dump a significant other, or divorce a spouse, for this. Sure it is a bit weird, but hardly a deal-breaker.  Yet people do commonly divorce spouses for wanting their body dumped in liquid nitrogen at a similar expense, to live again.  (Bryan Caplan is aghast.)  What is the difference?  Two possibilities:

  1. Even though skepticism about whether cryonics will work is one of the main arguments against it, in fact people think there's a substantial chance cryonics might actually work.  This triggers an abandonment reaction, like your buying a one-way-ticket to a distant land from which you could never return.  And it creates uncertainty about whether you are actually dead, making it harder for loved ones to have closure after a funeral.  This is the reason my wife gives for intending to prevent my being frozen. 
  2. Saying you want to do something weird for value or symbolic belief reasons is far less threatening than saying you want to do something weird for instrumental reasons.  Common social norms encourage acceptance of weird values and symbolic beliefs, as long as those don't much effect ordinary behavior.  But by saying your weird act is a much better way to achieve important ordinary goals, you are saying the rest of us are making a big mistake. 
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Loud Subtext

We literally don’t know what we communicate in important conversations:

What you say in a conversation — whether it’s on a first date, a job interview or pitching an idea — may be less important than how you say it.  But the cues that may decide the outcome can be so subtle that neither person in the conversation is consciously aware of them. Whether or not you get the job, or the other person’s phone number, is very strongly influenced by unconscious factors such as the way one person’s speech patterns match the other’s, the level of physical activity as people talk, and the degree to which one person sets the tone — literally — of the conversation. .. The features he found that are highly predictive of outcomes, he says, "match the literature in biology about signaling in animals." … "Half of our decision-making seems to be predicted by this unconscious channel," … The strong correlations between unconscious forms of communication and the decisions that result strongly undermines people’s perception that they are making choices based on rational, conscious factors. 

HT to Michael Bishop.

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Politics isn’t about Policy

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The above summarizes much of my contrarian world view.  (What else should go on this list?) When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.  I won’t support all these claims here; for today, let’s just talk politics.

High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence.  Instead such elections are usually described as “popularity contests.”  That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status.  If a jock wins, jocks have higher status.  If your girlfriend’s brother wins, you have higher status, etc.  And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions – you are somebody.

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Glory vs. Relations

From a thoughtful essay by Christina Sommers: 

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, … (a prominent accuser of Harvard president Lawrence Summers … [who suggested] men and women might have different propensities and aptitudes), points to the hidden sexism of the obsessive and competitive work ethic of institutions like MIT.  "It is a system," Hopkins says, "where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive. … The list of cultural norms that appear to disadvantage women … includes the favoring of disciplinary over interdisciplinary research and publications, and the only token attention given to teaching and other service" …

If asked to make a drawing, little girls almost always create scenes with at least one person, while males nearly always draw things – cars, rockets, or trucks. … Among primates, including our closest relations the chimpanzees, males are more technologically innovative, while females are more involved in details of family life. … After two major waves of feminism, women still predominate – sometimes overwhelmingly – in empathy-centered fields such as early-childhood education, social work, veterinary medicine, and psychology, while men are over-represented in the "systematizing" vocations such as car repair, oil drilling, and electrical engineering. …

[Consider] women’s [amazing] progress in veterinary medicine …

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Against Disclaimers

Blog posts are short and have a broad audience.  One of the worst things about writing them is having to make disclaimers.  Not just legal disclaimers mind you – those are only the tip of an iceberg.

Writing is hard in part because words have many associations that vary among readers.  Even when we use carefully choose our words to signal certain associations, we know some readers will instead hear other associations.  So in addition to saying what we do mean, we sometimes have to say explicitly what we do not mean. 

For example, most who say "Can I help you with that?" also mean to say "I am offering to help you with that."  So if you really just want to ask about your ability to help, but do not want to offer to help, you must explicitly disclaim the offer, as in "I’m not offering to help, but I was wondering, is it somehow possible for me to help?"  It seems reasonable to have to say more in this case, as this is the more unusual case. 

Less reasonably, in our current legal system anyone with an employer who writes anything is expected to explicitly declare that they are not speaking for their employer.  Apparently if they do not their employer can be sued for anything they say. This is unreasonable because the vast majority of writings by people with jobs are not intended to speak officially for their employer.  It would be far more reasonable to assume that we speak only for ourselves unless we explicitly say otherwise.  It is similarly unreasonable for fiction authors to have to always declare all their characters are fictional.

Unfortunately, the problem goes way beyond dumb legal rules.  Consider these common presumptions:

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