Tag Archives: Signaling

Missing Credentials

The typical modern credential (i.e., standard worker quality sign of widely understood significance) is based on a narrow written declared test of knowledge given early in one’s career on a pre-announced date at a quiet location. In this test, there is a list of questions to which one gives answers, answers then graded by independent judges who supposedly look only at the answers, and don’t take into account other things they know about the testee. In this post I want to point out that a much larger space of credentials are possible.

For example, you could be evaluated on actual products and contributions, based on your efforts over a long period, instead of being evaluated on short tests. You could be tested via tasks you must perform, instead of questions you must answer. After all, mostly we want to know what workers can do, not what questions they can answer. Since much of real question answering in the world is done verbally, test question-answering could also be done verbally, instead of in writing. And it could be done with frequent distractions and interruptions, as with most real question-answering.

However expressed, judges could take your first response as a starting point to ask you more questions (or give you more tasks), and dig deeper into your understanding. Judges could know you well, and choose questions specifically for you, and interpret your answers given all they know about you. This is, after all, closer to how most question-answering in the world actually goes.

Tests could be done at random days and times, and spread all through your career. Tests might be disguised as ordinary interactions, and not revealed to be tests until afterward. These approaches could discourage cramming for tests and other strategies that makes you good only at tests, and not so much at remembering or using your knowledge at other times.

Finally, you could be tested on your ability to integrate knowledge from a wide range of topic areas, instead of on your knowledge of a narrow topic area. Yes you could show that you know many areas via passing tests for many areas, but that won’t show that you have integrated these diverse areas usefully together in your mind.

Of course I’m not saying that these variations are never explored, just that they are used much less often than the standard credential test. This vast space of possible credentials suggests that a lot of innovation may be possible, and I’m naturally especially interested in helping to develop better credentials for abilities that I have which are neglected by the usual credentials. For example, I’d love to see a polymath credential, for those who can integrate understanding of many fields, and a conversation credential, on one’s ability to get to the bottom of topics via a back & forth interaction.

The narrow range of most credentials compared to the vast possible space also seems to confirm Bryan Caplan’s emphasis on school as emphasizing and screening conformity. Yes the the usual kinds of tests can often be cheaper in many ways, but the lack of much variation even when credentials are very important, and so worth spending a bit more on, suggests that conformity is also an issue. It really does seem that people see non-standard tests as illicit in many ways.

The dominance of the usual credential test can also be seen as a way our society is unfairly dominated by the sort of writing-focused book-smart narrowly-skilled people who happen to be especially good at such tests. These people are in fact usually in charge of designing such tests.

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Against Prestige

My life has been, in part, a series of crusades. First I just wanted to understand as much as possible. Then I focused on big problems, wondering how to fix them. Digging deeper I was persuaded by economists: our key problems are institutional. Yes we can have lamentable preferences and cultures. But it is hard to find places to stand and levers to push to move these much, or even to understand the effects of changes. Institutions, in contrast, have specific details we can change, and economics can say which changes would help.

I learned that the world shows little interest in the institutional changes economists recommend, apparently because they just don’t believe us. So I focused on an uber institutional problem: what institutions can we use to decide together what to believe? A general solution to this problem might get us to believe economists, which could get us to adopt all the other economics solutions. Or to believe whomever happens to be right, when economists are wrong. I sought one ring to rule them all.

Of course it wasn’t obvious that a general solution exists, but amazingly I did find a pretty general one: prediction markets. And it was also pretty simple. But, alas, mostly illegal. So I pursued it. Trying to explain it, looking for everyone who had said something similar. Thinking and hearing of problems, and developing fixes. Testing it in the lab, and in the field. Spreading the word. I’ve been doing this for 28 years now. (Began at age 29.)

And I will keep at it. But I gotta admit it seems even harder to interest people in this one uber solution than in more specific solutions. Which leads me to think that most who favor specific solutions probably do so for reasons other than the ones economists give; they are happy to point to economist reasons when it supports them, and ignore economists otherwise. So in addition to pursuing this uber fix, I’ve been studying human behavior, trying to understand why we seem so disinterested.

Many economist solutions share a common feature: a focus on outcomes. This feature is shared by experiments, incentive contracts, track records, and prediction markets, and people show a surprising disinterest in all of them. And now I finally think I see a common cause: an ancient human habit of strong deference to the prestigious. As I recently explained, we want to affiliate with the prestigious, and feel that an overly skeptical attitude toward them taints this affiliation. So we tend to let the prestigious in each area X decide how to run area X, which they tend to arrange more to help them signal than to be useful. This happens in school, law, medicine, finance, research, and more.

So now I enter a new crusade: I am against prestige. I don’t yet know how, but I will seek ways to help people doubt and distrust the prestigious, so they can be more open to focusing on outcomes. Not to doubt that the prestigious are more impressive, but that letting them run the show produces good outcomes. I will be happy if other competent folks join me, though I’m not especially optimistic. Yet. Yet.

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Beware Prestige-Based Discretion

Before the modern world, most jobs had a big physical component. And so physical ability (strength, speed, stamina, coordination, etc.) was one of the main things people tried to show off. Yes, people did try to show off physical abilities on the job. But when people got serious about showing off, they created special off-the-job contests, such as races and games.

These special contests made it much easier for observers to see small ability differences. For example, you might watch messengers all day on the job running from place to place, and though you’d get a vague idea of which ones were faster, you couldn’t see fine differences very well. But a race controls for other variation by having contestants all start at the same time on a line, and all run straight to a finish line. So even if one runner beats another by only a fraction of a second, observers can still see the difference. Other kinds of special contests also reduce noise, making it easier to see smaller ability differences.

When people can choose between competition forums with more and less noise, signaling incentives will induce them to choose forums with less noise. After all, competitors who choose forums with more noise will be seen as trying to hide their lower abilities among the noise.

So if messengers who wanted to show off their running abilities had a lot of discretion about how messenger jobs were arranged, they’d try to make their jobs look a lot like races. Which would help them show off, but would be less effective at getting messages delivered. Which is why people who hire messengers need to pay attention to how fast messages get delivered, and not just to hiring the fastest runners. Just hiring the fastest runners and letting them decide how messages get delivered is a recipe for waste.

In the rest of society, however, we often both try to hire people who seem to show off the highest related abilities, and we let those most prestigious people have a lot of discretion in how the job is structured. For example, we let the most prestigious doctors tell us how medicine should be run, the most prestigious lawyers tells us how law should be run, the most prestigious finance professionals tell us how the financial system should work, and the most prestigious academics tell us how to run schools and research.

This can go very wrong! Imagine that we wanted research progress, and that we let the most prestigious researchers pick research topics and methods. To show off their abilities, they may pick topics and methods that most reduce the noise in estimating abilities. For example, they may pick mathematical methods, and topics that are well suited to such methods. And many of them may crowd around the same few topics, like runners at a race. These choices would succeed in helping the most able researchers to show that they are in fact the most able. But the actual research that results might not be very useful at producing research progress.

Of course if we don’t really care about research progress, or students learning, or medical effectiveness, etc., if what we mainly care about is just affiliating with the most impressive folks, well then all this isn’t much of a problem. But if we do care about these things, then unthinkingly presuming that the most prestigious people are the best to tell us how to do things, that can go very very wrong.

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Who Wants School? 

We can explain human behavior on many levels. For example, we can explain a specific choice in terms of that person’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Or we can explain typical patterns of individual behavior in terms of their stable preferences, resources, abilities, and a rough social equilibrium in which people find themselves. Or one can try to explain why different social worlds find themselves in different local equilibria.

For example, while pressures to confirm are indeed often powerful, that power makes conformity especially inadequate as a total explanation. Yes in an equilibrium where everyone squawks like a chicken when they meet, you’d seem weird if you didn’t also squawk. But if we found a place where that was in fact the equilibrium, we might still puzzle over why that happened there.

Last week I tried to outline an explanation for why young people in rich nations today spend so much energy signaling their work potential via school. Yes in today’s equilibrium you look weird if you try to skip prestigious schools to show your work potential in other ways. So yes we can explain the typical pattern of personal school choices today in terms of the equilibrium that people find themselves in.

But centuries ago few went to school, and the few who went didn’t go long. So young people mostly showed their work potential in other ways, such as via family background and child labor. And then over the last few centuries enthusiasm for school grew greatly, until today 2/3 of US kids graduate from high school, and 2/3 of those at least start college. Mere conformity pressures seem quite inadequate to explain this vast change.

My tentative story less tries to explain individual behavior given a local equilibrium, and more tries to explain why cultures changed to support new different equilibria. I can believe that today school’s main function is to signal work potential, and that child labor has always been better at school at signaling work potential and at acclimating kids to work habits, if the local culture supports that pattern.

But as I said in my last post, cultures around the world and through history have been typically hostile to industrial work habits, such as frequent explicit novel orders and ranking. Adults resisted both such taking such jobs themselves and sending their kids to learn such jobs. And culture seems to have contributed a lot to this, such as via status concepts; people were often ashamed to take such jobs.

Because schools have long and widely had a more prestigious and noble image, people have been more eager to send their kids to school. So schools could habituate kids into industrial workplace styles, and parents could be less ashamed of accepting this. I’m not saying that this was a conscious plan (though sometimes it was), but that this was a lower-resistance path for cultural evolution. Societies that adopted more industry friendly schooling tended to get richer and then other societies were more willing to copy them.

Bryan Caplan seems to accept part of my story:

Let me propose a variant on Robin’s story.  Namely: While school is not and never was a good way to acclimate kids to the world of work, it does wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric or “prestige.”  “Teaching every child to reach his full potential” sounds far nobler than “Training every child for his probable future.”  As a result, making the political case for ample education funding is child’s play.  Education’s prestigious image in turn cements its focal status role, making academic achievement our society’s central signal of conformity.

Where Bryan disagrees is that he sees government as the main agent pushing school. He says it wasn’t individual workers who were unwilling to adopt industrial work habits, it was government regulators:

The main problem of development isn’t that people in poor places won’t individually submit to foreign direction, but that people in poor places won’t collectively submit to foreign direction.  “Letting foreigners run our economy” sounds bad, but individuals are happy to swallow their pride for higher wages.  Voters and politicians in LDCs, in contrast, loathe to put a price on pride – and therefore hamstring multinationals in a hundred different destructive ways.

And he says it wasn’t individuals who were eager to send their kids to school, it was government:

While I don’t dwell on history, my book does answer the question, “Why does schooling pass the market test?”  My answer is: “Market test?!  Government showers almost a trillion dollars a year on the status quo, and you call that ‘passing the market test’?!” … When individuals spend their own money, of course, they at least ponder whether what sounds wonderful is really worth the cost.  For collective spending, in contrast, Social Desirability Bias reigns supreme.

But these just don’t match the history I’ve read. For example, In the US there was a lots of other school funding before government took over:

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Public schools were always under local control, with no federal role, and little state role. The 1840 census indicated that of the 3.68 million children between the ages of five and fifteen, about 55% attended primary schools and academies. (more)

On typical worker reluctance to follow orders, see Greg Clark’s classic “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed? Lessons from the Cotton Mills”:

Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could “… it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won’t … They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings.” In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.

Chris Dillow says my viewpoint is not new, and quotes some 70s Marxist scholars:

Robin would, I guess, reach for the holy water and crucifix on learning this, but his idea is an orthodox Marxian one. I don’t say this to embarrass him. Quite the opposite. I do so to point out that Marxists and libertarians have much in common. We both believe that freedom is a – the? – great good; Marxists, though, more than right-libertarians, are also troubled by non-state coercion. We are both sceptical about whether state power can be used benignly. … However, whereas Marxists have engaged intelligently with right-libertarianism, the opposite has, AFAIK, not been the case – as Robin and Bryan’s ignorance of the intellectual history of Robin’s theory of schooling demonstrates. This is perhaps regrettable.

To be clear, I’m only somewhat libertarian, I’m happy to credit Marxist scholars with useful insight, and I wasn’t claiming my view on schools to be starkly original. I’m well aware that many have long seen school as training kids in industrial work habits. What I haven’t seen elsewhere, though I could easily believe it has been said before, is the idea of schools being an easier to swallow form of work habituation due to the ancient human connection between prestige and learning.

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School Is To Submit

Most animals in the world can’t be usefully domesticated. This isn’t because we can’t eat their meat, or feed them the food they need. It is because all animals naturally resist being dominated. Only rare social species can let a human sit in the role of dominant pack animal whom they will obey, and only if humans do it just right.

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. Related complaints are often made about the poorest workers in rich societies; they just won’t consistently do what they are told. It seems pride is a big barrier to material wealth.

The farming mode required humans to swallow many changes that didn’t feel nice or natural to foragers. While foragers are fiercely egalitarian, farmers are dominated by kings and generals, and have unequal property and classes. Farmers work more hours at less mentally challenging tasks, and get less variety via travel. Huge new cultural pressures, such as religions with moralizing gods, were needed to turn foragers into farmers.

But at work farmers are mostly autonomous and treated as the equal of workers around them. They may resent having to work, but adults are mostly trusted to do their job as they choose, since job practices are standardized and don’t change much over time. In contrast, productive industrial era workers must accept more local domination and inequality than would most farmers. Industry workers have bosses more in their face giving them specific instructions, telling them what they did wrong, and ranking them explicitly relative to their previous performance and to other nearby workers. They face more ambiguity and uncertainty about what they are supposed to do and how.

How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? A simple answer I want to explore in this post is: prestigious schools.

While human foragers are especially averse to even a hint of domination, they are also especially eager to take “orders” via copying the practices of prestigious folks. Humans have a uniquely powerful capacity for cultural evolution exactly because we are especially eager and able to copy what prestigious people do. So if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former.

In his upcoming book, The Case Against Education, my colleague Bryan Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist. I agree with Bryan that, compared with the theory that older students mostly go to school to learn useful skills, signaling better explains the low usefulness of school subjects, low transfer to other tasks, low retention of what is taught, low interest in learning relative to credentials, big last-year-of-school gains, and student preferences for cancelled classes.

My main problem with Caplan’s story so far (he still has time to change his book) is the fact that centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs, and the school signaling system has slowly displaced that job signaling system. Pressures to conform to existing practices can’t explain this displacement of a previous practice by a new practice. So why did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?

Like early jobs, school can have people practice habits that will be useful in jobs, such as showing up on time, doing what you are told even when that is different from what you did before, figuring out ambiguous instructions, and accepting being frequently and publicly ranked relative to similar people. But while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people.

Forager children aren’t told what to do; they just wander around and do what they like. But they get bored and want to be respected like adults, so eventually they follow some adults around and ask to be shown how to do things. In this process they sometimes have to take orders, but only until they are no longer novices. They don’t have a single random boss they don’t respect, but can instead be trained by many adults, can select them to be the most prestigious adults around, and can stop training with each when they like.

Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from their following his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.

When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school, even though such things will happen far more often than their ancestors would have tolerated. And if their job ends up giving them prestige, their prior “submission” to prestigious teachers will seem more appropriate.

This point of view can help explain how schools could help workers to accept habits of modern workplaces, and thus how there could have been selection for societies that substituted schools for early jobs or other child activities. It can also help explain unequal gains from school; some kinds of schools should be less effective than others. For example, teachers might not be prestigious, teachers may fail to show up on time to teach, teacher evaluations might correlate poorly with student performance, students might not have much choice of classes, school tasks might diverge too far from work tasks, students may not get prestigious jobs, or the whole process might continue too long into adulthood, long after the key habituation has been achieved.

In sum, while students today may mostly use schools to signal smarts, drive, and conformity, we need something else to explain how school displaced early work in this signaling role. One plausible story is that schools habituate students in modern workplace habits while on the surface looking more like prestigious forager teachers than like the dominating bosses that all animals are primed to resist. But this hardly implies that everything today that calls itself a school is equally effective at producing this benefit.

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Engagement As Respect

It saddens me to see funerals where attendees only say generic nice things about the deceased. Such as that he or she was a good neighbor, parent, or professional. I’d rather hear more specific descriptions and evaluations, some of them mildly negative, or at least not obviously positive. The usual platitudes suggest that people didn’t actually notice the deceased very much as a distinct person. “You say Fred from accounting’s funeral is Saturday; which one was Fred again?”

At my funeral, I prefer attendees to signal that they actually noticed me as a distinct person, and that they engaged that distinctiveness to some degree. I want them to have enough confidence in my reputation and the wider perception of my value to point out features of me that are not obviously positive. I want to have been a specific vivid person to them, who they often liked but sometimes didn’t. I’d like them to share specific anecdotes that remind them of my specific distinct features, both good and bad.

I feel similarly about book reviews. It saddens me to think of someone putting in all the effort it takes to write a book, but then even when their book seems to get a lot of attention, reviews mostly just rephrase the book jacket summary, or give generic praise like “must read” and “interesting”. It makes one suspect that most book reviewers haven’t actually read the book. Or if they read it, the book skimmed past their attention without making much of an impact, like an easy-watching TV show.

My first book comes out in May, and instead of having people generically “like” it, I’d much rather that my book had an impact on their thoughts, so that they became different in some way after reading it. I want them to have engaged my ideas enough that they actually grappled with some of the difficult issues I raise. They weren’t just carried along by my entertaining show, but they actually thought about what I said at some point. And readers who engage difficult issues discussed by an author almost never end up agreeing with that author all the way down the line. So the fact a reviewer disagrees with me on some points is a credible sign that they actually read and engaged my book. Which shows they thought my book worth engaging.

Yes, in a sense what I’m asking for here is counter-signaling. Acquaintances distinguish themselves from strangers by acting generically nice to you, such as by dressing nice, being polite, etc., but friends distinguish themselves from acquaintances by feeling free to speak their minds to you and dressing comfortably around you. At my funeral, I want people to see I had friends, and for my book I desire more impact on readers than just “I read some books on X and Y lately; they were okay, though I forget what they said.”

And yes, when signals are ranked by quality, then asking explicitly for a high quality signal is risky, because that can force people to say explicitly “Yes, some people deserve that high of a signal, but not everyone, and not you, you aren’t good enough.” But that is the risk I now take by saying: love me or hate me, but notice and remember me. Respect me by engaging me.

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Variety Seems Social

We sometimes complain that we are bored, and so we need to “change up” our products, services, and life habits. We often says this is due to our general preference for variety. But we are actually quite selective in when we want variety. In many areas of our lives we have little variety, and that doesn’t bother us much.

Toothpaste and mouthwash have flavors, but I use the same flavors for months at a time. My breakfasts are mostly alone, and have only minor variations from day to day. Dinners I usually eat with my wife, and we rotate between maybe a dozen different standard dishes. I often eat lunch out with a half dozen colleagues, and we rotate between a half dozen or so places, and in each place I vary what I order. When we host someone who visits from out of town, we go to a wider range of places.

The clothes I sleep in vary very little, and the clothes I wear around the house vary less than the clothes I wear to the office, which vary less than the clothes I wear to special occasions. Under-clothes vary less than more visible clothes. In my home, when we’ve repainted, or bought new furnishings or wall fixings, we tend to change things more often in our more visible rooms. We change the yard the most often, and the living room and entryway the next most often.

Products like cars, couches and refrigerators vary more on the outsides that more people can see than they do on the insides that few people see. We more often rearrange visible things like the placement of furniture compared to less visible things like where clothes are located in our chests or closets, or where dishes sit in kitchen cabinets. Advertising can change the images and attitudes associated with products, even when products don’t physically change, and we have more ads for types of products whose use is more visible to more people.

The general pattern here seems to be that variety is social – we prefer variety more for things that have wider social scopes. It is as if we personally don’t care much for variety, but we need our larger social circles to see that we can afford and tolerate a great deal of variety.

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Max & Miller’s Mate

Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind was very influential on me, and so I spent several posts on his book Spent. He has a new book out, coauthored with Tucker Max, called Mate: become the man women want. It is a how-to book, on how men can attract women.

The book’s voice is less academic and more like a drill sergeant — stern older men giving harsh but needed instructions to younger men. They don’t mind using some crude language, and they don’t argue much for their claims, expecting readers to accept what they say on authority. Fortunately, most of what they say seems to be pretty well-grounded in the literature.

The world view they present has mating quite thoroughly infused with signaling. Pretty much everything you do with actual or potential mates is used as a reliable signal of your hidden features. Makes me wonder in what other self-help books it would be okay to present as strong a signaling view. Perhaps there are career advice books that infuse signaling as throughly into their view of the work world. But I expect people wouldn’t tolerate advice books on school, religion, arts, and charity that are this signaling heavy. Even if the advice was solid.

Though heavy on signaling, Max & Miller don’t consider self-deception. They talk simply about men just looking inside themselves to see what they want, and tell men to take what women seem to want at face value. But perhaps talking about self-deception to their target audience (young men who feel they are failing at mating) would just confuse more than help.

At several points Max & Miller warn their readers that women never evolved general ways to see and appreciate things like wealth and intelligence; women instead evolved to appreciate more specific signals like nice clothes and wit. So don’t go trying to show off your IQ score or bank balance.

They don’t advise women to fix this oversight, but instead advise men to fix how they show off. I suspect the idea is that humans are just more general and flexible on how to achieve their goals than on what exactly are their goals. And I suspect this is right. While one can imagine a creature that just wants “whatever helps me have many descendants”, humans are just not those creatures.

Two suggestive implication follow from this fact. First, if descendants of humans are ever blocked in their growth or expansion into the universe due to their failing to be sufficiently flexible or general, that failing will more likely come from their preferences, rather than their engineering or science. Second, as human incomes fall toward subsistence, our primary preferences for survival trump others, inducing effectively more general and flexible preferences. So subsistence income descendants have a better chance of avoiding generality failures.

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Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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Error Is Not Simple

At her Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia Galef talked to me about signaling as a broad theory of human behavior.

Julia is smart and thoughtful, and fully engaged the idea. Even so, I’m not sure I convinced her. I might have had a better chance if we’d dived quickly into a detailed summaries of related datums. Instead we more talked more abstractly about her concern that signaling seems a complex theory, and shouldn’t we look to simpler theories first. For example, on the datums that we see little correlation between medicine and health, and that people show little interest in private info on medicine effectiveness, Julia said:

Like the fact that humans are bad at probability and are pretty scope insensitive, and don’t really feel the difference between a 5% chance of failure versus an 8% chance of failure. Also the fact that humans are superstitious thinkers, that on some level, it feels like if we don’t think about risks, they can’t hurt us, or something like that. … It feels like that I would have put a significant amount of weigh even in the absence of signaling caring, that people would fail to purchase that useful information.

Yes, the fact that we follow heuristics does predict that our actions deviate from those of perfect rationality agents. It predicts that instead of spending just the right amount on something like medicine, we may spend too much or too little. Similarly, it predicts we might get too much or too little info on medical quality.

But by itself that doesn’t predict that we will spend too much on medicine, and too little on medical quality info. In fact, we see a great many other kinds of areas, such as buying more energy efficient light bulbs, where people seem to spend too little. And we see a great many other areas were people seem too eager to gain and apply quality info; we eagerly consume news media full of info with little practical application.

As I said in the podcast, but perhaps didn’t explain well enough, we are often tempted to explain otherwise-puzzling behaviors in terms of simple error theories; the world is complex so people just can’t get it right. This won’t explain why we tend to do the same things as others who are socially near, but that we often like to explain as social copying and conformity; we try to do what others do so we won’t look weird, and maybe others know something.

But even conformity, by itself, won’t explain the particular choices that a group of socially adjacent people make. It doesn’t predict that elderly women in Miami tend to spend too much on medicine, for example. It is these patterns across space, time, group, industry, etc. that I try to explain via signaling. For example, relative to other products and services, people have consistently spent too much on medicine all through history, especially in rich societies, and for women and the elderly.

I’ve offered a signaling story to try to simultaneously explain these and many other details, and yes it takes a few pages to explain. That may sound more complex than “its all just random mistakes”, but to explain any specific dataset of choices, that basic error story must be augmented with a great many specific ad hoc hypotheses of the form “and in this case, the particular mistake these people tend to make happens to be this.”

The combination of “its just error” and all those specific hypotheses is what makes that total hypothesis actually a lot more complex and a priori unlikely than the sorts of signaling stories that I offer. Which is why I’d say such signaling hypotheses are favored more by the data, at least when they fit reasonably well and are generated by a relatively small set of core hypotheses.

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