Tag Archives: Forager

Status As Strength

Yesterday I offered a theory of (some) management consulting:

Firms often have big obvious misallocations of resources, where … many highest status folks in the firm resist … changes. … If a prestigious outside consulting firm weighs in, that can turn the status tide. Coalitions can often successfully block a CEO initiative, and yet not resist the further support of a prestigious outside consultant. … Good-looking kids from our most prestigious schools … are the cheapest folks you can buy with our most prestigious affiliations.

What is status? One theory is that status is a commonly-seen summary of one’s value as an ally. In places where physical strength is more useful, strength counts more for status. In places where knowing the king is more useful, knowing the king counts more. And so on. But the consulting tale I tell above seems at odds with this theory.

Imagine that status in a firm was a proxy for one’s usefulness as an ally within that firm, summarizing the threats one could credibly make, the people one could fire, the favors one could plausibly call in, etc. And imagine that the current equilibrium was that opponents of change together held more of these useful resources – they successfully blocked change.

Now imagine that the CEO hires an outside consultant who writes a report recommending change. It should be clear to everyone that this outside firm has no direct power within the firm. It cannot fire anyone, go slow on a project, etc. So if status was just a proxy for relevant local abilities, then this consultant should have little status. Thus if a consultant actually does help the CEO by lending status to the CEO’s side, status must be something else.

So I’m led to consider a sticky-feature concept of status. Long ago coalition politics was important, and foragers had to estimate how useful each person would be if they joined a coalition. So our distant ancestors considered a standard set of features, such as strength, intelligence, charisma, etc., that tended then to indicate that someone would be a useful ally. Humans evolved specialized mental modules for making such estimates, and for estimating common perceptions of such estimates.

Today we have inherited such mental modules, and often use them to estimate which side will win a contest of coalitions. And even though relevant abilities have changed somewhat, our inherited expectations about who will win a coalition contest are somewhat self-reinforcing. For example, if we expect that coalitions of taller people tend to win, then we will be reluctant to cross such a coalition, which will tend to make them win. This can be a self-reinforcing focal equilibrium of the coordination game that is coalition politics.

If the features that define status are sticky, being somewhat locked into mental models that estimate which coalitions would win contests, then outside consultants with no formal power inside a firm could still tip the balance of status by siding with a CEO. Celebrities who know little about a product could make us more willing to buy it by endorsing it, and students could gain status via past affiliation with professors who have no power in their future work world.

If students gain status by graduating from prestigious schools, and if employers hire students for the status they add to a work coalition, is school productive? Well in this situation school is privately productive, both for the student and the employer. The employer isn’t inferring a hidden ability, but buying a visible feature. So this isn’t signaling exactly. But on the other hand, it isn’t obviously globally productive. The gain an employer gets from adding status to his coalition may well come at the expense of competing coalitions.

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The Puberty Puzzle

Time magazine considers a big important puzzle:

By the 1980s, the onset of puberty, if not actual menstruation, had gone into free fall–a change so sudden and pronounced that something more than normal evolution must have been at work. In a landmark 1997 study of 17,000 [US] girls … more than 10% of white girls and an astonishing 37.8% of black girls were showing early breast development by age 8. … Later studies, one in 1998 and another in 2010, included Hispanics and produced similar results. On average, 2 out of every 10 white girls, 3 out of 10 Latinas and 4 out of 10 black girls are showing breast development by age 8. (more)

They consider some possible explanations:

Obesity, a well-established puberty accelerant, is high on the list of suspects. … Data from China and India similarly indicate that race by itself isn’t a factor but general prosperity is. Onset of puberty is on a downward march in those countries too. … But even in Europe, where the standard of living has been high for decades and diets haven’t changed much, something strange is going on. A study of girls conducted in Denmark in 2008 found that the average age of breast development there is 8.86 years, which … is a full year earlier than it was for Danes as recently as 1993. … Some investigators are focusing on environmental contaminants like PBBs and … bisphenol A … A number of studies have found that overweight boys may, if anything, suffer from delayed puberty.

Oddly they don’t even mention divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, factors that some theory suggests are crucial:

Father absence is indicative of the degree of polygyny (simultaneous and serial) in society. Polygyny of both kinds creates a shortage of women in reproductive age, and thus, early puberty will be advantageous. Available comparative data indicate that the degree of polygyny is associated with a decrease in the mean age of menarche across societies, as is the divorce rate a presumptive index of serial polygyny, in strictly monogamous societies. (more)

This theory has some empirical support:

As specified by evolutionary causal theories, younger sisters had earlier menarche than their older sisters in biologically disrupted families (n = 68) but not biologically intact families (n = 93). This effect was superseded, however, by a large moderating effect of paternal dysfunction. Younger sisters from disrupted families who were exposed to serious paternal dysfunction in early childhood attained menarche 11 months earlier than either their older sisters or other younger sisters from disrupted families who were not exposed to such dysfunction. (more)

I heard of this theory a while ago, but until now I hadn’t realized its radical implication: humans may have evolved adaptations to make major body/life features conditional on our social environment! If girl brains can order hormones to induce early puberty after seeing lots of nearby polygyny, how else might our bodies be contingent what our brains see about our social world? Do young brains see the level of violence,  prosperity, or work complexity around, and adjust hormone-induced plans for body size, immune system strength, or brain resources? Could this adjustment explain recent trends in mortality, height, or intelligence? So many possibilities to consider!

Anthropologists often say that it is a mistake to look for “the” ancestral human environment or lifestyle, that what most defines humans is variety and adaptability. I’m going to take that view a lot more seriously from now on.

Added 4p: Why are people so much more willing to use strange chemicals to explain earlier puberty that other trens like increasing IQ, lifespan, and height? Is it because chemicals are bad, and therefore can only explain bad things?

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A Theory Of Status

A few days ago I asked for a theory of status, to help predict how status will change in a rather different future. Today let me offer such a theory.

Here are our main clues about status:

  1. Status is a socially shared way to evaluate and rank people
  2. Status seems mostly relative; you can’t raise everyone’s status
  3. Human status has two main parts: dominance and prestige
  4. Most animals have dominance, which is who would win a pairwise conflict
  5. Prestige status seems to not exist in animals with simple social relations.
  6. Unlike other shared rankings, like sexiness or dominance, we seem unaware of what exactly prestige ranks.

So what is prestige? That is, what sort of ranking would be useful for human-like primates to track about each other, but also be something illicit, so that foragers would be reluctant to admit its true function? One obvious candidate stands out to me: one’s value as an ally in coalition politics. That is, how much better off is a typical coalition with this person as an ally, relative to not having them as an ally. This is clearly an important concept, well worth tracking. It only makes sense in groups with complex coalition politics, and foragers have norms against overtly engaging in such politics.

Since an ability to win pairwise contests is useful to coalitions, we expect dominance to add to prestige. But humans and similar primates can also add value to a coalition by having skills that make them useful associates, and by being on good terms with other good-ally-material folks. And both skills and associations also seem to make important contributions to human prestige. Note that this theory predicts that other primates with complex coalition politics, like chimps, will also have a prestige status distinct from dominance status.

If prestige is about one’s value in coalition politics, what does that predict about em prestige? Of the list I gave, items 2,5,7,12,16, should be substantially related to prestige.

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We See Dominance

Foragers might have spend a million years enforcing egalitarian rules against overt dominance, but our capacities for seeing dominance are still quite central to our nature:

We tested the hypothesis that social hierarchies are fluent social stimuli; that is, they are processed more easily and therefore liked better than less hierarchical stimuli. In Study 1, pairs of people in a hierarchy based on facial dominance were identified faster than pairs of people equal in their facial dominance. In Study 2, a diagram representing hierarchy was memorized more quickly than a diagram representing equality or a comparison diagram. This faster processing led the hierarchy diagram to be liked more than the equality diagram. In Study 3, participants were best able to learn a set of relationships that represented hierarchy (asymmetry of power)—compared to relationships in which there was asymmetry of friendliness, or compared to relationships in which there was symmetry—and this processing ease led them to like the hierarchy the most. In Study 4, participants found it easier to make decisions about a company that was more hierarchical and thus thought the hierarchical organization had more positive qualities. In Study 5, familiarity as a basis for the fluency of hierarchy was demonstrated by showing greater fluency for male than female hierarchies. This study also showed that when social relationships are difficult to learn, people’s preference for hierarchy increases. Taken together, these results suggest one reason people might like hierarchies—hierarchies are easy to process. This fluency for social hierarchies might contribute to the construction and maintenance of hierarchies. (more)

More evidence for the homo hypocritus hypothesis that covert dominance was central to forager lives.

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Charity And Temptation

Bryan Caplan responded to John Marsh:

Nearly two-thirds of poor children … reside in [single-parent] homes. … “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children nearly three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.”

In a world of cheap, reliable contraception, any woman can easily avoid single motherhood with near-certainty. Simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man. Avoiding single motherhood, to be blunt, is a choice.

Bryan further commented:

b. Sex with birth control, unlike abstinence, does not lead to chronic burning lust.
c. Potentially poor women who delay child-bearing have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile.

Karl Smith took issue:

Baby lust is quite real, almost certainly genetically determined and probably explains a fair fraction of the differences in outcome among women. … Potentially poor women [do not] have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile. … There is a serious dearth of reliable men. .. Bryan’s prescription of promiscuous birth-controlled sex lowers a women’s rank in the marriage market. … My natural assumption [is] that poor single mothers are engaging in utility maximizing behavior. This implies that the alternatives to being a poor single mother are worse and that people accept this fate because they have low endowments in the marriage market.

Let me first make two points:

  1. The reliability of men is only an issue because we have weakened the commitment of marriage. Most farmer societies made marriage into a strong commitment, and encouraged young women to hold out for it. This led to an equilibrium where most women, even poor ones, married, so that most kids had two parents. Men now choose to be unreliable more often because we have greatly lowered its penalties.
  2. Even with weak marriage it is possible to identify reliable poor men. If you can’t tell, ask your parents, grandparents, or their siblings. But the hypergamous mating preferences of women typically lead them to prefer other men, especially in a relatively rich society like ours.

What to do? First, why not offer the option of a strong marriage commitment? More women would end up with reliable husbands if couples could choose between strong marriage, weak marriage, or no marriage. But surely even with this option, many women in our rich society would still choose single parenthood, and the relative poverty it implies. What then?

Now Bryan is clearly right — this is in fact a choice. But Karl is also right — it is a choice made in the face of relatively strong desires. The key question is: how weak do temptations have to be to make the choices they influence unworthy of charity? We feel only weak inclinations to help people who choose poverty, and could easily have chosen otherwise. But we feel much stronger inclinations to help folks who could have avoided poverty only via quite unusual levels of self-control and determination. Where in this spectrum does the temptation to single parenthood lie?

Given forager sharing norms, forager fathers only needed to reliably help kids for a few years. But farmers, who shared less, had to set a higher self-control bar for charity eligibility. A farmer could quickly starve by being too generous with neighboring charity cases. Now that we are richer, we can be more indulgent, but it seems to me an open question whether we should. I tend to agree with Bryan that very poor foreigners seem more deserving of aid that self-indulgent not-so-poor natives.

Added 5p: Karl Smith responds:

Central to Byran and somewhat shockingly to me – Robin’s – thinking is whether or not the single parents deserve charity.
On Facebook I think Robin framed the question as “how weak do temptations have to be before they make people less deserving of charity”
My clear answer would be that there is no level so low. Human suffering is bad. Reductions in human suffering are good.
Why humans are suffering is of concern to us in knowing when our interventions might be productive but it doesn’t affect whether they are warranted.

If we commit ahead of time to making our help contingent on certain behavior, that can have good effects in inducing such behavior. This is probably the origin of our intuitions that certain behaviors make folks less worthy of help.

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Are Nations Tribes?

Ezra Klein:

During Monday’s debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked whether an uninsured 30-year-old who had chosen to go without insurance should be left to die if he falls unexpectedly ill. Ron Paul dodged the question. … If you collapse on a street, an ambulance will rush you to a hospital. If you get into a car accident, you’ll wake up in intensive care. … Whether you get billed or your family gets billed or society gets billed, someone will pay the bill. … Even the hardest of libertarians has always understood that there are places where your person ends and mine begins. Generally, we think of this in terms of violent intrusion or property transgressions. But in health care, it has to do with compassion. We are a decent society, and we do not want to look in people’s pockets for an insurance card when they fall to the floor with chest pains.

But a great many ill, collapsed, etc. folks in the world are largely left to die, at least if curing them costs anything like a US hospital stay. Ezra argues above for “decent” national care, not global care. And even libertarians wouldn’t leave family members to die. So everyone agrees that we heroically help some, and leave others to die. We only disagree on who falls into which category.

I see key similarities between this and many responses to my recent posts, such as on 9/11, alien elites, or immigration. Such as: How can I not see that 9/11 deaths matter far more than most deaths, because this was them attacking our way of life? Or that alien elites secretly running our society, even running it well, must be exterminated though that would be unreasonable for human elites? Or that the richest big US county, Fairfax County, shouldn’t restrict immigration from poorer counties because we US folks are similar enough to each other?

Humans clearly evolved quite different mental modes for thinking about how to treat folks with our our local tribe, vs. how to treat distant strangers. Libertarians largely accept the usual ideas about how to treat both groups. Where they disagree is who counts as a stranger.

Libertarians limit “my tribe” to close family and small chosen communities, much as did our forager ancestors, who were free to change bands at any time. Farmer culture taught farmers to think of distant strangers as “my tribe”, as long as “our elites” said so, or if “we” fought wars together. And nation-states have worked hard over the last few centuries to transfer this feeling to nations. Libertarians mostly just don’t accept this. And though I’m not strictly libertarian, on this I agree – it is far from obvious that nations must be our tribes.

Now people usually try to be nicer to their tribe than to distant strangers. From this one might conclude that libertarians, who see more folks as strangers, are not as nice people. But not only are folks who see their tribe as smaller usually nicer to such insiders, libertarians also tend to be more accepting of mutually beneficial interactions with strangers. And economists make a pretty strong case that libertarian policies such as free immigration would greatly improve overall welfare.

As with Ezra’s comments above, most critiques of libertarian policy seem to miss this central point, by invoking standard ways to classify folks into “us” and “them.” To criticize libertarians effectively, you need to make clear why exactly “we” are a nation, rather than the entire world, or close family and friends. Alas, few critics even try to argue this point.

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Bashing Billionaires

Steve Jobs stepped down from his post as CEO of Apple yesterday. The internet instantly erupted in adulation. … Mr Jobs’s wealth … was built in no small part upon an intellectual-property regime that I and many others believe to retard progress. … Bill Gates used to get plenty of heat from the class warriors, but some time after … [he] devoted a huge portion of his fortune to his charitable foundation, he ascended to a sort of philanthropic secular sainthood. … But Mr Jobs has eschewed charity. …

[Yes,] charity very often does rather less to improve quality of life than selling people ever better products at ever lower prices. But this line of reasoning hasn’t convinced very many of us that, say, Charles and David Koch’s vast wealth is proof of their successful service to humankind. Mr Jobs’s relative immunity from the scorn of those otherwise keen to stick it to billionaires is due, I think, to the admiring pleasure wordsmiths takes in the elegance of the Apple devices they use for work, play, and status-signaling. …

Steve Jobs is a white wizard in wire rims who offers …. mesmerising portals to a better, beautiful, more enchanted world. … So who gives a fig if he doesn’t shower his billions upon worthy causes. … But what about the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ’em, the greedy bastards. All of which is to say, our intuitions about economic desert and fair distribution are…complicated. (more)

Consider: what elites did foragers worry most about? Foragers worried most about elite capacity for violence, and an inclination to use it. They also worried lots about unequal access to food and shelter, and to tools useful for all these things. So foragers enforced strong norms against giving orders or doing violence, and norms favoring sharing of food, shelter, medicine, and tools. In these senses foragers were egalitarian.

However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal. After all, in a forager world unequal capacities of these sort just couldn’t go anywhere near as horribly wrong as unequal violence or food. Because of this humans seem evolved to tolerate, and even celebrate, unequal abilities in art, popularity, or sex appeal.

Fast forward to today, and consider which billionaires are liked versus disliked. I’d bet that artistic billionaires like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey are among the most liked, even after one controls for how well know they are. Same for rich actors and talk show hosts. In contrast, billionaires who are merely associated with an ordinary business are probably the least popular.

Note that while it was pretty functional for foragers to tolerate artistic inequality more, an added tolerance today for artistic billionaires over mere business billionaires has few functional benefits. Your added envy and hostility to mere business billionaires is just an arbitrary dysfunctional vestige of times long since past. Yes it might feel better to bash them, but is that really a good enough reason to do so?

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Blackmail History

The most common way academics study regulation is to seek models under which such regulation could be efficient (or moral), and to seek empirical data on details of current local regulatory practice to distinguish such models. But this standard approach tends to neglect both models where people personally gain by supporting inefficient (or immoral) regulation, and the patterns of such regulations across diverse cultures, times, and topics. Some other day I’ll elaborate on this general point. Today I’ll apply my own advice to blackmail, and consider the history of blackmail law.

Some say that we ban blackmail today in order to encourage more gossip. Others say blackmail law is driven mainly by elites wanting to protect themselves. Relevant to both of these theories is the fact that both blackmail and negative gossip were illegal in ancient Rome. (Details below.) But only regarding elites. Unless you had a special privilege, it was illegal to say something embarrassing about an elite. It wasn’t until the last few centuries that law has allowed gossip that says bad true things about elites, and then to compensate we greatly increased blackmail penalties. So at least regarding the pre-modern era, the elite protection theory gets a boost, while the gossip support theory looks weak. This data also helps one understand how the ancients could affirm such high moral standards – few were allowed to point out elite hypocrisy.

Foragers relied heavily on gossip – “leaders” and “legal guilt and punishment” were determined almost entirely by informal uncontrolled gossip. Farmer elites tried to crush gossip as a social force competing with their edicts, though gossip stayed stronger among elites. In the modern world we have returned more to forager values, and so we more empower and rely on gossip, though usually within limits. We allow juries to decide legal trials, though we limit outside gossip influence on jurors. Via democracy, public opinion now picks top leaders, and mass media is recently getting comfortable saying bad things about leaders’ personal lives. Via a celebrity and media culture, gossip chooses many other elites. And we also allow freer speech, including saying embarrassing things about elites.

Forager values seem less enamored of money, since a money-based relation is often framed as a kind of domination, and for foragers domination is illicit. So while the modern world more embraces decentralized conversation, we seem to often be wary of letting base money and commerce influence conversation, which we idealize. For example, there is today widespread wariness of paid advertising, open campaign finance, and of for profit firms controlling schools and media, and publishing research. While this wariness doesn’t usually lead to prohibitions of money interacting with gossip, it makes people more willing to accept such prohibitions.

Blackmail can be framed as a base thing, money, polluting both our idealized conversation, and our idealized private lives. Distaste for pollution of high things by low, together with strong elite distate for blackmail, which mostly targets them, seems enough to explain why blackmail remains illegal.

Some quotes on blackmail law history: Continue reading "Blackmail History" »

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The Great “Charity” Storm

Around 1800 in England and Russia, the three main do-gooder activities were medicine, school, and alms (= food/shelter for the weak, such as the old or crippled). Today the three spending categories of medicine, school, and alms make up ~40% of US GDP, a far larger fraction than in 1800. Why the vast increase?

My explanation: we long ago evolved strong feelings of respect for these activities, but modern context changes have allowed out-of-equilibrium exploitation of such feelings. Details:

1. Foragers who personally taught kids, cared for sick folks, and gave food/shelter to weak folks, credibly signaled their loyalty to allies, at least when such needy were allies. Weak group selection helped encourage such aid as ways to signal loyalty, in place of other possible loyalty signals. Humans eventually evolved deep feelings of respect for such activities.

2. Farmers inherited such feelings, and thus also gave social credit to those who donated money instead of time to promote these three classic charities. Rich farmer elites felt this more strongly, as they had more forager style attitudes. As such donations were less observable than forager help, farmer donors had weaker incentives to help. Also, the indirection often resulted in money being spend badly.

3. Industry era folk also inherited such feelings, strengthened by wealth. Voters today get social credit for supporting tax-funded activities that look similar to the three classic charities: medicine, school, alms — even though one can fake such signals without having the loyalty that such signals are seen as showing. That is, votes supporting spending taxes on medicine, school and alms are interpreted as showing loyal “caring” for one’s community, even though most of this spending is on typical voters, not those in special need, and even though one person’s vote doesn’t change outcomes. And even if a vote did change outcomes, paying via taxes doesn’t sacrifice personal income relative to local rivals, making this signal mostly “cheap talk.” Indirection continues to hurt effectiveness. All this creates a perfect storm of vast voter support for tax-funded medicine, school, and alms. So we can all feel fantastic about how caring we all are. Yeah us.

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Cheated-On Personalities

Ron Guhname took a dataset of ~1500 people, and predicted which people said their spouse cheated on them from the victim’s five-factor personality, as well as his or her age, social class, religiosity, and body mass index. He found less cheating on religious people, on older and less agreeable men, and on conscientious and closed-to-experience women. These personality effects are much bigger than the religion effect!

More on agreeableness:

Agreeableness is a tendency to be pleasant and accommodating in social situations. … empathetic, considerate, friendly, generous, and helpful. … believe that most people are honest, decent, and trustworthy. People scoring low … may … be suspicious and unfriendly. … Agreeableness [has a] positive association with altruism and helping behavior. … In the United States, midwesterners and southerners tend to have higher average scores on agreeableness than people living in other regions.

More on openness:

Openness involves active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. … Closed to experience … [people] tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behavior. They prefer familiar routines … [and] have a narrower range of interests. … Openness to experience correlates with creativity … [and] crystallized intelligence, but not fluid intelligence. … People who are highly open to experience tend to be politically liberal and tolerant of diversity. As a consequence, they are generally more open to different cultures and lifestyles. They are lower in ethnocentrism. … People living in the eastern and western parts of the United States tend to score higher on openness to experience than those living in the midwest and the south.

I am puzzled by many things here. It makes sense that older people are better able to detect cheating, but then why doesn’t this effect work for women? It makes sense that suspicious people are cheated on less, but then why no agreeable effect for women. It makes sense that conscientious people are cheated on less, as they should be more careful in watching for cheating. But why no such effect for men? Could all women be suspicious enough, and all men conscientious enough?

And what is going on with openness, and why does it only influence women? Open vs. closed personality seems to correlate both with more of a forager than farmer mentality (art, travel, rich, liberal, intellectual, female promiscuity), and also with more of a far than a near mental mode (creative, larger social groupings). Makes me wonder how much forager mentality and far mode correlate.

Added 3p: I read that chart way wrong! Sorry – have edited the above greatly to correct my error.

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