Christians often say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin." I say, "Love the signaler but hate the signal." We all want to be respected, by ourselves and others, or at least not despised or ignored. So we fill our lives with activities that could get us more admired, such as pursuing our career, practicing our art or sport, tending our beauty, developing our style, being loyal to our friends and family, caring for the downtrodden, becoming more informed about current events, and so on.
Curt, not wishing you hadn't tried does not show effort was not wasted, nor that there wasn't effort in hope of winning.
Robin, I don't think "actors, musicians, and athletes" make your point. It's rare for even the failures to wish they hadn't tried, so they view the pleasure of the activity and the competition as worth the costs even without the highly elevated status. Plus so many eagerly participate in those activities even with full knowledge they'll never be anything special. I think only concious seeking for status, beyond that engendered by normal urges, would count as "wasteful" from the seeking human's perspective. That's fairly rare, IMO restricted to specialty fields like politics and science.
I doubt that I'm willing and able to take your advice to "take five, and chill". I think a better approach to minimizing the harm of this bias is to seek status in domains where few are competing, along the lines that David Friedman suggests in this post.
Curt, I agree we gain some direct pleasure from these activities, but I argue that our effort is more than is explainable by this pleasure, because we want the status. It is (part of) this additional effort that is wasteful. To see it directly, see actors, musicians, and athletes who fail after years of enormous effort.
Your concern of "admirable activity" signalling as inefficient is largely directed at the wrong audience. The agents for which it is inefficient are our genes and they would indeed be better off if they could somehow collude and agree not to compete so wastefully. We, however, are programmed to enjoy doing and appreciating admirable activities and so for us they are not generally wasteful - they are, in and of themselves, a good for us. Even status seeking in general is not necessarily inefficient for humans - while it's a waste for our genes, we get a kick out of the things that confer status. Only insofar as we seek the actual status per se is it inefficient for us.
Eliezer, yes, status is not completely zero sum, and there can be other reasons why there might not be enough of an activity. To argue that math activity is indeed admirable, you need a concrete reason to think we would do too little of it.
PS: Status is not completely a zero-sum game. Imagine one society where everyone hates everyone else equally, and another society where everyone respects everyone else equally. The hedonic impacts of emotion and behavior render these two societies distinguishable, even though the equal social statuses apparently have no input into social negotiations.
Oh, you meant costly signaling. I was thinking of the sort of signal you get over an optical fiber, not peacock's tails. I'm probably not as familiar with the math as I should be, but in an intuitive sense I now see what you mean. Activity directed toward signaling admirableness, rather than admirable consequentialist goals, is not at all admirable; even admirable activities become less admirable, and less efficient, to whatever degree they are influenced in the direction of signaling admirableness.
"Altruistic behavior: An act done without any intent for personal gain in any form. Altruism requires that there is no want for material, physical, spiritual, or egoistic gain."-- Glossary of Zen
However, I still think we should distinguish admirability-signaling activities from admirable consequences. Signaling admirable mathematical ability is a zero-sum game, or at least, it has major zero-sum elements. That doesn't mean that the admirable consequence of math itself is a zero-sum game! Let us be careful not to signal rationality through cynicism...
Bob, I was clear to say that admiration is partly, but only partly, a relative status game. And I did not contrast admirable activities with "money" activities; making money is often considered to be admirable.
Robin, are you suggesting that "doing admirable activities" is a zero-sum game? Why should it be, if "making money" is not?
When we "make money" it is only valuable in a relative sense. So are admirable activities. But that doesn't stop either of them from being a positive-sum game. They just have different value systems, that's all.
Yes, signals can reveal info, but if that info is of only modest social value, we can all be better off by not revealing it. I could post a short primer on the subject if that would be of value.
If you've got the time, I would definetly appreciate that.
TGGP, I am not advocating any subsidies - the situation is that art and sport create some "common good" that Robin is arguing we are biased to overvalue. I think it is possible that we are biased to undervalue it. In either case, whether you should take tax money to subsidise this type of "common good" is another matter entirely.
Robin, I have no academic papers to suggest bias against non-monetized value. The point is entirely based on personal experience - the amount of times that politicians and media sources have advanced only monetary reasons to back a certain project, or depreciated something else because of lack of monetary returns. Phrases derriding none-monetary concerns as "luxuries", calling upon proponent of them to "live in the real world" or calling on the market to "decide" and such seem to abound. Certainly there are people I know who have the bias without doubt - and it is a bias, as rephrasing exactly the same statement in monetary terms can cause them to shift their opinion.
But that is all from my own personal experience, which may be biased or incomplete. I'd be very interested in any research or other people's opinions on the matter.
Eliezer, perhaps you are not familiar with the standard economic analysis of the inefficiency of signaling. Yes, signals can reveal info, but if that info is of only modest social value, we can all be better off by not revealing it. I could post a short primer on the subject if that would be of value.
Robin, the problem is not activities which signal admirable qualities, it's the distortions in the signal. Signals, generally speaking, are good - an information, a truth. Misleading or misinterpreted or distorted signals are bad, a bias.
Stuart, do we have evidence of bias against non-monetized value?
Kaj, "suggests" and "may" are redundant qualifiers.
Eliezer, while there may well be biases in how we perceive admirableness, my claim is that we are generally biased to favor activities which reveal admirable qualities. I agree the qualities revealed are in fact admirable - it is the activities that I complain about.
Stuart, why is it that I should have to subsidize art or sport or whatever else it is you like? I do not want to restrict you from supporting them, but you do not seem to want to allow me the option not to support them.
Regarding the trees of Easter Island, it is rats that are to blame.
The economy does not exist separate from its participants either. Consumer spending is "wasteful" if the consumers themselves do not get as much enjoyment as they otherwise would have if they had not spend their money in such a manner and an economy is "benefited" if consumers are more able to attain things they want.