Tag Archives: Signaling

Hidden Motives of Gratitude

I recently got 568 Twitter folk to say which of these 4 things they are most thankful for:

Assume first that one is most thankful for the process which increased your gains by the highest ratio, relative to prior expectations. If we are just talking about such a degree of selectivity into a better position, then it seems to me that the first answer is obviously best: there are vastly more possible than actual creatures. If you get zero value from not existing, but a positive value from existing, and your prior odds of existing were tiny, then your gain ratio is astronomical.

However, some insist that they can only compare scenarios where they exist, and so reject the counterfactual possibility that they might not have existed. For them, the second option seems obviously the most selective among the remaining three. Humans are clearly enormously special compared to the vast number of species who will ever exist. For example, far more special than are humans in any one place and time compared to humans in others.

What if the goal of a poll respondent isn’t to identify the option from which they benefited more, but instead to use this poll as an opportunity to signal something about themselves. (Other than literal understanding and honesty.) The apparently most useful thing to signal then would be loyalty to one’s immediate associates, and confidence in one’s local roles. In which case the last poll option seems obviously best.

But oddly, 48% of poll respondents picked the third option! What goal could explain that choice? One possibility is that they sought to signal their “patriotism” toward their place and time in human history. People in different places often feel rivalrous toward each other. Different nations are in different places, and even within nations different culture, ethnic, and political “factions” tend to be in different places.

What about your time in history? Well first, there is less rivalry of feeling between different times, and less to gain by signaling loyalty to your time. Furthermore, if you think you’ve seen a trend in history toward times getting better, to make your time the best so far, you should expect the future to get even better, making your time not so great compared to all the times, past and future. So I suspect that many overt time affiliations are actually covert political affiliations.

Thus I’m led to conclude that the strongest motive in choosing what to be most thankful for is signaling loyalty to one’s region. Nationalism, racism, political alignment, and cultural rivalry. If you encourage people to be more grateful, that’s what you will be encouraging. Not what I would have guessed, but I guess not so crazy either.

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Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety

These events probably happened in the reverse order, but imagine if humans inventing counting after herding. That is, imagine a community long ago which herded animals, and where having a better herd was a big mark of higher status. Since they could not count, these humans gossiped about who had the better herd. For example, they traded anecdotes about times when someone’s herd had seemed especially awe-inspiring or dingy. And via gossip (and its implicit coalition politics), they formed a rough consensus on who had the best herds. A consensus where the opinions of high status folks tended to count for more.

Then someone invented counting and said “This will help us ensure that we aren’t missing stragglers when we bring our herds back from grazing”, and “Now we can objectively measure who has the larger flock”. While this community might be grateful for that first feature, I predict that they would hate the second one.

Folks would point out that size isn’t the only factor that matters for a better herd, that counting mistakes are possible, and that gossip about herd counts might inform herd thieves about who to target. Some say this won’t stop people from gossiping lots about whose herd is better, while others say that it will cut gossiping but that’s bad as gossip is good. Better to ban counting, they all say.

Don’t believe me? Consider these poll results (and attached comments): Continue reading "Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety" »

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Breadth, Humor Show Privilege

Imagine an old costume drama, showing servants interacting with those they serve. Think about what topics each side is allowed to mention, and how much humor would be tolerated from each. I say it is obvious that there are far fewer topics on which the servants may speak, or if they may speak, may joke. If there is a way of seeing what a servant said as purposely rude or malicious, they will be not be given much benefit of the doubt or chance to argue that they’ve been misunderstood. You must be very careful re first impressions when a second impression is unlikely to follow a bad first one.

Now imagine conversations centuries ago between English and French. Who is allowed to talk or joke about topics related to English-French conflicts, or ways in which the two groups are said to differ? If the conversation is taking place in an English context, with far more English than French present, then unless the French are especially high status or focal to the event, my guess is that the French will have to be more careful about what they say. The French are more at risk of harm here if they are accused of insulting the English, than vice versa.

Over the last few years, I’ve been told many times that there are many (and increasingly more) topics on which I, as a older white cis male presumed-conservative STEM-associated economist, must not speak. Often not even to directly quote others who may speak. And if I may speak, I must not joke. These categories of mine make me presumed evil, I am told. So if I say any combination of words where, taken out of context, it is possible to interpret them as “dog-whistling” an evil intent, observers are said to be free to treat that as my actual intent. Language being as ambiguous as it is, it is hard to talk long on any topic without such combinations appearing occasionally. And as humor relies much more on ambiguity and exaggeration, humor greatly increases their frequency.

When people separate the world into “us” and “them”, and try to explain why “we” are better, they often say that “we” are more honest, knowledgeable, and open-minded, and so are more willing and able to discuss a wider range of topics. And they often say that “they” are stupid dull humorless inhuman drones, lacking key sparks of life, such as humor, wit, curiosity, and spontaneity. But you can see from the above analysis that this impression is often misleading. In contexts where you hold the upper hand, they will more often have to limit their topics and humor, to avoid your wrath.

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Problem-Owners Tolerate Risk

In theory, both risk aversion and value of life year relative to income are mainly set by utility function concavity. However, as both also show puzzlingly large empirical variation, there is apparently a lot more going on than a simple context independent utility function. But what?

While pondering this question, I saw some nature videos of cute young mammals, who start out as physically and emotionally fragile, and prone to crying, but who grow to be tough and emotionally steady like their parents. I wondered: might it be useful to frame this as a transition from risk-aversion to risk-tolerance?

Of course youngsters aren’t always risk averse. Sometimes they try to play with a scorpion, or rough-house too close to a cliff. In such cases, mom may restrain their risk-taking. But when kids suffer some mild depredation, such as wanting food or other help from mom, that’s when they act most emotionally needly and fragile:

Oh my, this problem I face is way too hard for my fragile emotions. I’m young, innocent, and nearly dying of fright to think about it. Won’t someone who loves me come to protect me from this terrible anxiety and suffering?

Plausibly parents are built to find it hard to resist wanting to help such puppy-dog eyes, to get them to take care of their kids. And when parents do tend to help when kids suffer, that actually makes kids more risk-tolerant regarding choices to take precautions to prevent future suffering.

Humans are famously neotenous, retaining more childlike features further into adulthood. And living in large social groups that share food and other resources, even human adults have incentives to show puppy-dog eyes, and to feel sympathetic to those eyes when they have something to share. So it seems plausible that human nature would have adapted the fragile-tough child-adult dynamic to apply to the helpee-helper relations in groups of adults.

That is, I’m suggesting that evolution has built we humans to strategically (if unconsciously) make a key attitude choice regarding each particular situation we face: do we project a cool tough self-reliant risk-tolerance, or a more emotionally-expressive risk-averse fragile vulnerability. In other words, do we choose to act vulnerable but sympathetic, or do we choose to act more “emotionally mature”? I’m not saying this is the only factor that influences risk-tolerance, but it may be one of the largest.

Yes, people often talk as if emotional maturity is the product of learning from experience, with perhaps some help from an admirable moral will. But if emotional maturity were always the better strategy, why would evolution have ever encoded in us any other tendency? Evolution could have made the very young take on emotionally mature attitudes if it had wanted. And in fact, it does sometimes want that, such as when kids “grow up too fast” due to getting little help in taking on adult-sized problems.

The key maturity choice here is of whether to “own” each problem that we face. It makes sense to own a problem, and act more risk-tolerant toward it (and more risk-averse re preventing it), when we seek to impress others with our confidence in handling the problem, when we bid for parent/leader roles, and when we want to avoid the embarrassment of others seeing that no one comes when we ask for help. However, when getting help with our problem seems more important, and likely enough, or when showing submission to and dependence on others seems important, it can make more sense to try to get others to own our problem by acting more risk-averse and hurt by the problem. We can suggest that others are to blame for causing our problem, and even if not they are responsible to help fix it.

So does my theory fit the data? In one key study, “Psychosocial maturity proved a better predictor of risk-taking behaviour than age.” Which is striking because age (at least below age 65) is one of our two usual best predictors of risk-tolerance, the other being male gender. Some data suggests that the following groups are also more risk-tolerant: the tall, the married, and those with more kids. People who work in finance, insurance, and real estate seem more risk-averse, and buying insurance on a risk is a strong sign that one is averse to it. Those with mid-level wages and extreme high or low wealth also seem more risk tolerant. The self-employed seem more risk averse.

Emotional maturity tends to increase on average with age, range of experiences, intelligence, self-esteem, and work performance, positive attitudes toward childcare, and not being an orphan. Here are some descriptions of the concept:

An emotionally mature individual gives off a sense of ‘calm amid the storm.’ They’re the ones we look to when going through a difficult time because they perform well under stress. … When you’re less mature, the world is full of minor annoyances, and you’re unaware of your own privileges. Think about how often a day you complain about others or different situations. (more)

Accept[s] the sorrows of life whole heartedly and … show[s] distress when there is occasion to be worried, without feeling a requisite to use a false facade of bravery. (more)

If my theory is right, and much of the variation in risk aversion (and value of life) we see results from strategic context-dependent choices to act risk-tolerant or risk-averse, this makes it harder to used measured risk-aversion (and value of life) to inform policy. Yes, if true risk aversion were higher, that would justify paying more to save lives, including via stricter regulation, and also justify more redistribution and social insurance. But if much of what we see people do is done for show, then we have to try to infer the real level of risk aversion behind all that show.

My guess is that on average in a social species with lots of sharing, free-riding is a bigger problem than excess autonomy. If so, we more often try to seem more needy to gain more help, than we try to seem less needy to gain respect. And thus typical behavior will exaggerate our real overall degree of risk aversion (and value of life). But I don’t yet know how to show this. It does seem worth further study; we may well figure out some way to see.

Added 3p: Related datum: “women are more sensitive to pain and less tolerant of pain than men.”

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Radical Signals

Many people tout big outside-the-Overton “radical” proposals for change. They rarely do this apologetically; instead, they often do this in a proud and defiant tone. They seem to say directly that their proposal deserves better than it has gotten, and indirectly that they personally should be admired for their advocacy.

Such advocacy also tends to look a lot like costly signaling. That is, advocates seem to go out of their way to pay costs, such as via protests, meetings, writing redundant boring diatribes, accosting indifferent listeners at parties, implying that others don’t care enough, and so on. But it so, what exactly are they signaling?

If you recall, costly signaling is a process whereby you pay visible costs, but make sure that those costs are actually less when some parameter X is higher. If you get a high enough payoff from persuading audiences that X is high, you are plausibly willing to pay for these costly signals, in order to produce this persuasion. For example, you pay to go to school, but since school is easier if your are smart and conformist, going to school shows those qualities to observers.

Here are six things you might show about a radical proposal:

Investment – It is a good financial investment. You pay costs to initiate or improve a business venture or investment fund that includes variations on this proposal. Doing so is less costly, and even net profitable for you, if this turns out to be a profitable project. By visibly paying costs, you hope to convince others to join your investment.

Popularity – It will eventually become more popular. You lend your time, attention, and credibility to a “movement” in favor of this proposal. This effort on your part may be rewarded with praise, prestige, and attention if this movement becomes a lot more popular and fashionable. You hope that your visible support will convince others to add their support.

Morality – You, and the other supporters of this proposal, are unusually moral. You pick a proposal which, if passed, would impose large costs in the service of a key moral goal. For example, you might proposal a 90% tax on the rich, or no limits on encryption. Others have long been aware of those extreme options, but due to key tradeoffs they preferred less extreme options. You show your commitment to one of the values that are traded off by declaring you are willing to lose big on all the other considerations, if only you can win on yours.

Conformity – You are a loyal member of some unusual group. You show that loyalty by burning your bridges with other groups, via endorsing radical proposals which much put off other groups. This is similar to adopting odd rules on food and dress, or strange religious or ideological beliefs. Once a radical proposal is associated with your group for any reason, you show loyalty to that group by supporting that proposal.

Inventive – You are clever enough to come up with surprising solutions. You take a design problem that has vexed many, and offer a new design proposal that seems unusually simple elegant, and effective. Relative to someone who wanted to show effectiveness, your proposal would be simpler and more elegant, and it would focus on solving the problems that seem most visible and vexing to observers, instead of what are actually the most important problems. It would also tend to use theories that observers believe in, relative to theories that are true.

Effective – If adopted, your proposal would be effective at achieving widely held goals. To show effectiveness, you incur costs to show things that are correlated with effectiveness. For example, you might design, start, or complete related theoretical analyses, fault analyses, lab experiments, or field experiments. You might try to search for problematic scenarios or effects related to your proposal, and search for design variations that could better address them. You might search for plans to do small scale trials that can give clearer cheaper results, and that address some key potential problems.

In principle showing each of these things can also show the others. For example, showing that something is moral might help show its potential to become popular. Still, we can distinguish what an advocate is more directly trying to show, from what showing that would indirectly show.

It seems to me that, among the above options, the most socially valuable form of signaling is effectiveness. If we could induce an equilibrium where people tried to show the other things via trying to show effectiveness, we’d induce a lot more useful effort to figure out what variations are effective, which should help us to find and adopt more and better radical proposals. If we can’t get that, inventiveness seems the second best option.

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Against Irony

Papua New Guinea. There are nearly 850 languages spoken in the country, making it the most linguistically diverse place on earth. … Mountains, jungles and swamps keep villagers isolated, preserving their languages. A rural population helps too: only about 13% of Papuans live in towns. …. Fierce tribal divisions—Papua New Guinea is often shaken by communal violence—also encourages people to be proud of their own languages. The passing of time is another important factor. It takes about a thousand years for a single language to split in two, says William Foley, a linguist. With 40,000 years to evolve, Papuan languages have had plenty of time to change naturally. (more)

British printer who used a mirrored question mark to distinguish rhetorical questions in 1575, and John Wilkins, a British scientist who proposed an inverted exclamation mark to indicate irony in 1668. … The problem with adopting new irony punctuation is that if the people reading you don’t understand it, you’re no better off. … The ironic punctuation mark that the social internet can claim as its own is the sarcasm tilde, as in, “That’s so ~on brand~” … But tildes can feel a bit obvious. For a wryer mood, a drier wit, one might try a more subdued form of ironic punctuation—writing in all lowercase. …

Irony is a linguistic trust fall. When I write or speak with a double meaning, I’m hoping that you’ll be there to catch me by understanding my tone. The risks are high—misdirected irony can gravely injure the conversation—but the rewards are high, too: the sublime joy of feeling purely understood, the comfort of knowing someone’s on your side. No wonder people through the ages kept trying so hard to write it. (more)

Just as the urge to signal loyalty to people nearby has kept New Guinea folks from understanding people over the next mountain, our similar urge pushes us to write in ways that make it hard for those outside our immediate social circles to understand us. Using irony, we sacrifice ease of wide understanding to show loyalty to a closer community. 

Language is like religion, art, and many other customs in this way, helping to bond locals via barriers to wider interaction and understanding. If you think of yourself instead as a world cosmopolitan, preferring to promote world peace and integration via a global culture that avoids hostile isolationist ties to local ethnicities and cultures, then not only should you like world-wide travel, music, literature, emigration, and intermarriage, you should also dislike irony. Irony is the creation of arbitrary language barriers with the sole purpose of preventing wider cultural integration. 

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Who Likes Simple Rules?

Some puzzles:

  • People are often okay with having either policy A or policy B adopted as the standard policy for all cases. But then they object greatly to a policy of randomly picking A or B in particular cases in order to find out which one works better, and then adopt it for everyone.
  • People don’t like speed and red-light cameras; they prefer human cops who will use discretion. On average people don’t think that speeding enforcement discretion will be used to benefit society, but 3 out of 4 expect that it will benefit them personally. More generally people seem to like a crime law system where at least a dozen different people are authorized to in effect pardon any given person accused of any given crime; most people expect to benefit personally from such discretion.
  • In many European nations citizens send their tax info into the government who then tells them how much tax they owe. But in the US and many other nations, too many people oppose this policy. The most vocal opponents think they benefit personally from being able to pay less than what the government would say they owe.
  • The British National Health Service gets a lot of criticism from choosing treatments by estimating their cost per quality-adjusted-life-year. US folks wouldn’t tolerate such a policy. Critics lobbying to get exceptional treatment say things like “one cannot assume that someone who is wheel-chair bound cannot live as or more happily. … [set] both false limits on healthcare and reducing freedom of choice. … reflects an overly utilitarian approach”
  • There’s long been opposition to using an official value of life parameter in deciding government policies. Juries have also severely punished firms for using such parameters to make firm decisions.
  • In academic departments like mine, we tell new professors that to get tenure they need to publish enough papers in good journals. But we refuse to say how many is enough or which journals count as how good. We’d keep the flexibility to make whatever decision we want at the last minute.
  • People who hire lawyers rarely know their track record at winning vs. losing court cases. The info is public, but so few are interested that it is rarely collected or consulted. People who hire do know the prestige of their schools and employers, and decide based on that.
  • When government leases its land to private parties, sometimes it uses centralized, formal mechanisms, like auctions, and sometimes it uses decentralized and informal mechanisms. People seem to intuitively prefer the latter sort of mechanism, even though the former seems to works better. In one study “auctioned leases generate 67% larger up-front payments … [and were] 44% more productive”.
  • People consistently invest in managed investment funds, which after the management fee consistently return less than index funds, which follow a simple clear rule. Investors seem to enjoy bragging about personal connections to people running prestigious investment funds.
  • When firms go public via an IPO, they typically pay a bank 7% of their value to manage the process, which is supposedly spent on lobbying others to buy. Google famously used an auction to cut that fee, but banks have succeed in squashing that rebellion. When firms try to sell themselves to other firms to acquire, they typically pay 10% if they are priced at less than $1M, 6-8% if priced $10-30M, and 2-4% if priced over $100M.
  • Most elite colleges decide who to admit via opaque and frequently changing criteria, criteria which allow much discretion by admissions personnel, and criteria about which some communities learn much more than others. Many elites learn to game such systems to give their kids big advantages. While some complain, the system seems stable.
  • In a Twitter poll, the main complaints about my fire-the-CEO decisions markets proposal are that they don’t want a simple clear mechanical process to fire CEOs, and they don’t want to explicitly say that the firm makes such choices in order to maximize profits. They instead want some people to have discretion on CEO firing, and they want firm goals to be implicit and ambiguous.

The common pattern here seems to me to be a dislike of clear formal overt rules, mechanisms, and criteria, relative to informal decisions and negotiations. Especially disliked are rules based on explicit metrics that might reject or disapprove people. To the extent that there are rules, there seems to be a preference for authorizing some people to have discretion to make arbitrary choices, regarding which they are not held strongly to account.

To someone concerned about bribes, corruption, and self-perpetuating cabals of insiders, a simple clear mechanism like an auction might seem an elegant way to prevent all of that. And most people give lip service to being concerned about such things. Also, yes explicit rules don’t always capture all subtleties, and allowing some discretion can better accommodate unusual details of particular situations.

However, my best guess is that most people mainly favor discretion as a way to promote an informal favoritism from which they expect to benefit. They believe that they are unusually smart, attractive, charismatic, well-connected, and well-liked, just the sort of people who tend to be favored by informal discretion.

Furthermore, they want to project to associates an image of being the sort of person who is confidently supports the elites who have discretion, and who expects in general to benefit from their discretion. (This incentive tends to induce overconfidence.)

That is, the sort of people who are eager to have a fair neutral objective decision-making process tend to be losers who don’t expect to be able to work the informal system of favors well, and who have accepted this fact about themselves. And that’s just not the sort of image that most people want to project.

This whole equilibrium is of course a serious problem for we economists, computer scientists, and other mechanism and institution designers. We can’t just propose explicit rules that would work if adopted, if people prefer to reject such rules to signal their social confidence.

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Downfall

On Bryan Caplan’s recommendation, I just watched the movie Downfall. To me, it depicts an extremely repulsive and reprehensible group of people, certainly compared to any real people I’ve ever met. So much so that I wonder about its realism, though the sources I’ve found all seem to praise its realism. Thus I was quite surprised to hear that critics complained the movie didn’t portray its subjects as evil enough!:

Downfall was the subject of dispute … with many concerned of Hitler’s role in the film as a human being with emotions in spite of his actions and ideologies. … The German tabloid Bild asked, “Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?” in their newspaper. … Cristina Nord from Die Tageszeitung criticized the portrayal, and said that though it was important to make films about perpetrators, “seeing Hitler cry” had not informed her on the last days of the Third Reich. Some … felt the time was right to “paint a realistic portrait” of Hitler. Eichinger replied to the response from the film by stating that the “terrifying thing” about Hitler was that he was human and “not an elephant or a monster from Mars”. Ganz said that he was proud of the film; though he said people had accused him of “humanizing” Hitler. (more)

For example, the New Yorker:

But I have doubts about the way [the makers’] virtuosity has been put to use. By emphasizing the painfulness of Hitler’s defeat Ganz has certainly carried out the stated ambition … he has made the dictator into a plausible human being. Considered as biography, the achievement (if that’s the right word) of “Downfall” is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous—that he was kind to his cook and his young female secretaries, loved his German shepherd, Blondi, and was surrounded by loyal subordinates. We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did? (more)

The conclusion I have to draw here is that no remotely realistic depiction of real bad people would satisfy these critics. Most people insist on having cartoonish mental images of their exemplars of evil, images that would be contradicted by any remotely realistic depiction of the details their actual lives. I’d guess this is also a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum; any remotely realistic depiction of the details of the life of someone that people consider saintly, like Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King, would be seen by many as a disrespectful takedown.

This is probably the result of a signaling game wherein people strive to show how moral they are by thinking even more highly of standard exemplars of good and even more lowly of standard exemplars of bad, compared to ordinary people. This helps me to understand self-righteous internet mobs a bit better; once a target has been labeled evil, most mob members probably don’t want to look too close at that target’s details, for fear that such details would make him or her seem more realistic, and thus less evil. Once we get on our self-righteous high horse, we prefer to look up to our ideals in the sky, and not down at the complex details on the ground.

Added 11p: This attitude of course isn’t optimal for detecting and responding to real evil in the world. But we care more about showing off just how outraged we are at evil than we care about effective response to it.

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The Puzzle of Human Sacrifice

Harvey Whitehouse in New Scientist:

Today’s small-scale societies tend to favour infrequent but traumatic rituals that promote intense social cohesion – the kind that is necessary if people are to risk life and limb hunting dangerous animals together. An example would be the agonising initiation rites still carried out in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, involving extensive scarification of the body to resemble the skin of a crocodile, a locally revered species. …

With the advent of farming, … [and their] larger populations, … new kinds of rituals seem to have provided that shared identity. These were generally painless practices like prayer and meeting in holy places that could be performed frequently and collectively, allowing them to be duplicated across entire states or empires. …

A puzzle, however, is that many of these early civilisations also practised the brutal ritual of human sacrifice. This reached its zenith in the so-called archaic states that existed between about 3000 BC and 1000 BC, and were among the cruellest and most unequal societies ever. In some parts of the globe, human sacrifice persisted until relatively recently. The Inca religion, for example, had much in common with today’s world religions: people paid homage to their gods with frequent and, for the most part, painless ceremonies. But their rulers had divine status, their gods weren’t moralising and their rituals included human sacrifice right up until they were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. …

Instead of helping foster cooperation as societies expanded, Big Gods appeared only after a society had passed a threshold in complexity corresponding to a population of around a million people. … something other than Big Gods allowed societies to grow. … that something was the shift in the nature of rituals from traumatic and rare to painless and repetitive. … human sacrifice was used as a form of social control. The elites – chiefs and shamans – did the sacrificing, and the lower orders paid the price, so it maintained social stability by keeping the masses terrorised and subservient. … the practice started to decline when populations exceeded about 100,000. … 

Piecing all this together, here is what we think happened. As societies grew by means of agricultural innovation, the infrequent, traumatic rituals that had kept people together as small foraging bands gave way to frequent, painless ones. These early doctrinal religions helped unite larger, heterogeneous populations just enough to overcome the free-riding problem and ensure compliance with new forms of governance. However, in doing so they rendered them vulnerable to a new problem: power-hungry rulers. These were the despotic god-kings who presided over archaic states. Granted the divine right to command vast populations, they exploited it to raise militias and priesthoods, shoring up their power through practices we nowadays regard as cruel, such as human sacrifice and slavery. But archaic states rarely grew beyond 100,000 people because they, in turn, became internally unstable and therefore less defensible against invasion.

The societies that expanded to a million or more were those that found a new way to build cooperation – Big Gods. They demoted their rulers to the status of mortals, laid the seeds of democracy and the rule of law, and fostered a more egalitarian distribution of rights and obligations. (more)

It makes sense that complex intense rituals can only work for small societies, while larger societies need simpler rituals that everyone can see or do. It also makes sense that moralizing gods help promote cooperation. But I’m not convinced that we understand any of the rest of these patterns. The human sacrifice part seems to me especially puzzling. I can sort of see how it could serve a function, but I don’t see why that function would be especially effective in societies of population 10-100K.

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Champions Show War Ability

Sports make sense as a way for individuals to develop and show off certain packages of physical and mental abilities. Team sports make sense as a way to show off such abilities in contexts of team production, which have long been especially relevant to human success. Of course we need not be consciously aware of this function; genetic and cultural evolution needed only make us inclined to do sports when that might make us get and look good.

When two teams play each other, the final score is a good summary about the relative abilities of the two teams. Of course there’s more info to be gleaned from game details, but not that much more. And if you can’t study those game details well yourself, but must instead rely on the judgments of others, a final score is admirably resistant to bias and lobbying.

Many sports have a regular season of games, following by a championship round designed to select a tree of “champions”, a tree whose root is the uber-champion of all. Often a “world champion”. This is somewhat puzzling, as individual championship games are not that much more diagnostic about team abilities than are regular season games, and there are far fewer championship games. Why count these games so much more than others?

One could use an elo-rating type system to estimate the abilities of each team based on their pairwise scores. Or one could use even fancier statistical systems to estimate distributions over team abilities, using scores and other data. Within such systems, championship games would be just a few more games, and not be given extra weight. If we just want to know about team abilities, why put so much weight on championships?

Arguably, through most of ancient history the main abilities that observers were interested in inferring and developing via sporting contests were war abilities. This is plausibly why most sports have long been team sports focused on war-like contests, relative to more common social contests. And in war, one mainly cares about abilities displayed in contexts where stakes are very high: hard battles where a large fraction of combatants die, as opposed to practice battles where at most a few are injured.

So championships plausibly exist as a way to focus sporting displays on high stakes contexts. The closer a team gets to the root of the championship tree, the more is at stake in each game, and the better that game’s score becomes as a measure of player abilities in high stakes contexts.

Yes, outside of sports the stakes do vary over contexts, and observers should want to see how individuals perform across a range of stake sizes. But as war is rare today, in our world success mostly comes from consistent quality over many low stakes contests, not from a few super-battles. Designing sporting contests to instead maximize an emphasis on the highest stakes possible seems better explained as a heritage of war. As are many other features of modern human attitudes and behaviors.

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