While we tend to say and think otherwise, in fact much of what we do is oriented toward helping us to show off. (Our new book argues for this at length.) Assuming this is true, what does a better world look like?
In principle, I agree with you. But imagine a signal which approximates the ideal you describe. For example, consider my ATM card and PIN number. They are very cheap for me to obtain and remember; they demonstrate to the bank that I have a certain attribute (authority to withdraw money from my account); and they would be expensive for an imposter to obtain). A nearly ideal signal, and yet if someone saw me withdrawing money from my bank account , would they see it as a signal?
I'm not sure, but I think the problem is my sloppy thinking (and perhaps that of others) about what a signal is.
I don't think it's true that signalling is expensive by definition. A signal just needs to be differentially expensive according to whether the individual does or doesn't have the claimed attribute. The optimal signal is infinitely expensive (i.e. impossible) for those who don't have the attribute, and infinitely cheap (i.e. free) for those who do.
Part of the way you become elite is by being good at the signalling game. Which means that elites on average are going to have a lot of crazy beliefs.
Whether it's bad or good, signalling is expensive, almost by definition. A cheap signal would lose its effectiveness as a signal absent some kind of collective norm.
That said, I agree that signalling isn't necessarily bad. If a cure for cancer is found, it's likely to be by some researcher who is trying to impress other people with his intelligence, skill, and creativity. In a country that is trying to show its superiority in terms of quality scientific research.
And it's obviously dangerous to have some central authority deciding what signalling is good and what is counterproductive. In fact, part of the reason college is so expensive is the various loan programs passed by legislatures who want to demonstrate their support of education.
So we want to target more qualified elites with our signals, but we rely on elites to signal their qualifications. This seems to be a little circular, and I wonder if it could be smacked with something like PageRank. Scott Aaronson talked about using the idea for an eigenmorality here: https://www.scottaaronson.c...
If the signals we value can be put onto a directed graph, we could probably choose an elite audience effectively. If it works some elites may even have an incentive to optimize for it.
Taxing Hollywood, in particular, sounds good to me. Or just repeal their existing tax cuts. See http://www.washingtonexamin... (Admittedly, Mr. Reynolds had a slightly different, yet not entirely different, objective in mind.)
"What if our audiences knew more about which medicines helped health, which charities helped the poor, which national policies help the nation, or which creative activities promoted innovation? That would push us to also know more, and lead us to choose more effective medicines, charities, policies, and innovations."
Yes, I agree this is a critical point.
I'm not sure what to make of your third to last paragraph. By small vs large encounters, are you referring to the amount of time the audience devotes to attending to a particular signal? Is a more intense encounter the same as a larger encounter? Why is "many and small vs a few and large" a critical distinction?
I like the way signal detection theory divides this topic up into four possible outcomes, so I'll use that. You're referring to situations when too many noise trials are presented, and it prevents the audience from responding when signal trials are presented. My impression is that your main goal is to increase the ratio of signal-to-noise, but then there's this other argument you make with respect to making audiences more elite1:
"The more that we expect to gain via impressing better-informed elites, the better informed will our show-off actions be."
Maybe, but it seems like that's conditional upon a number of unstated claims. How often are better informed elites impressed by better informed actions? How reliably are audiences able to identify which elites are better informed?
1 I presume making audiences more elite refers to increasing their hit probability on signal trials and their correct rejection probability on noise trials when the signal-to-noise ratio is held constant.
Great post. I agree that it is key to improve the quality of the audience.
People who explain sub-optimal outcomes by reference to signaling often leave their explanations incomplete. The mere fact that someone is trying to signal altruism, for instance, does not explain why so much altruism is ineffective. You also have to add another assumption, namely that the people you are trying to impress with your signals - the audience - either do not care about effectiveness, or are incapable of detecting it (or some combination of the two).
This means that the audience is key both when it comes to explaining sub-optimal outcomes of signaling behavior, and when it comes to interventions that improve outcomes of such behavior.
If you're waiting for the intelligence of your audience to improve, you're going to have a long wait.
All this seems to assumes that signalling is bad, that it should be discouraged or replaced with other activities that are somehow more real or productive. What if it isnt and it shouldnt?
In health, Medicare and Medicaid spending by hospital on standard procedures is sometimes publicly made available, but it is not a standard report which comes out, say, on a quarterly basis. Just publishing those numbers consistently could create a lot of pressure to be more effective. Of course given the elephant in the brain, no one directly involved feels motivated to do this. But that doesn't mean it can't happen.
So to answer your question on how to make it possible, I'd suggest that in particular government spending on health be made public by hospital on standard procedures. And publish a quarterly and annual report on this topic. And more generally work harder to publicize costs, which are easier to know, then the benefits, which are harder. But if we at least have a norm of publishing costs, especially for government spending, that could help a lot. People want to show they care, and if it's blatantly obvious money is being poorly spent, that shifts incentives in the right direction.
This is not an especially original idea, but I think it could be pushed harder than it has been.
Or, taxed. Tax ads. That would be a tax on many kinds of social media, and a tax on another kind of signaling.
You are assuming that the elites know more than the non elites. Recent political events would indicate this as a false premise.
Assuming this is true. Social media should be banned.
Signals need to be costly and hard to fake, but that still leaves a huge range of actions that are eligible to play the role of signals. Something narrows down that range to the types of signals that real people actually send. Conventions play an important role: We observe how others signal something desirable, realize that we too have the resources to also send such signals, and that's how signaling conventions get rolling.
If we want to get the most positive externalities from all that inevitable signaling, trend-setters would be smart to take account of all the things that people often want to signal, figure out all the eligible signals that would do the job (cost, unfakability) and identify the method with the best externalities.
Academics aren't the people with the social power to bend the conventions to something better, but maybe we can figure out which signaling regimes are worth promoting. Then the Oprahs will at least have some guidance about how to steer their zombie armies. So if you had Oprah's ear, and you knew that signaling would not decrease but its execution was somewhat malleable, what would you ask her to promote? What currently used signaling strategies would it be a substitute for?
"Transparent connections between acts and larger consequences" seems the same as making everyone better educated on such connections. Yes of course when possible, but the question is how to make this possible.