Cheap signaling

Chocolates

Image by J. Paxon Reyes via Flickr

If all this stuff people do is for signaling, wouldn’t it be great if we could find ways of doing it more cheaply? At first glance, this sentiment seems a naive error; the whole point of paying a lot for a box of chocolates is to say you were willing to pay a lot. ‘Costly signaling’ is inherently costly.

But wait. In a signaling model, Type A people can be distinguished from Type B people because they do something that is too expensive for Type B people. One reason this action can be worthwhile for Type As and not for Type Bs is because type As have more to gain by it. A man who really loves his girlfriend cares more about showing her than man who is less smitten. A box of chocolates costs the same to both men, but hopefully only the first will buy it.

But there is another reason an action may be worthwhile for As and not for Bs: the cost is higher for type Bs. Relating some intimate gossip about a famous person is a good signal that you are in close with them because it is expensive for an ignorant person to fake, but very cheap for you to send.

Directly revealing your type can be thought of as an instance of this. Taking off your shirt to reveal your handsome muscles is extremely cheap if you have handsome muscles under your shirt and extremely expensive if you do not.

This kind of signaling can be very cheap. It only needs to be expensive for the kinds of people who don’t do it. And since they don’t do it, that cost is not realised. Whereas in the first kind of case I described (exemplified by chocolates), signaling must be relatively expensive. People of different types each have to pay more than the type below them cares enough to pay. i.e. what the person below thew would gain by being mistaken for the type above.

Cases of the second type, like gossip, are not always cheap. Sometimes it is cheaper for the type who sends the signal to send it, but they still have to pay quite a lot before they shake off the other type. If education is for signaling, it seems it is at least partly like this. University is much easier for smart, conscientious people, but if it were only a week long a lot of others would still put in the extra effort.

There can also be outside costs. For instance talking often works the second way. It is extremely cheap to honestly signal that you are an accountant by saying ‘I’m an accountant’, because the social repercussions of being found out to be lying are costly enough to put most people off lying about things where they would be discovered. While this is cheap both for the signalers and the non-signalers, setting up and maintaining the social surveillance that ensures a cost to liars may be expensive.

So if we wanted to waste less on signaling, one way to make signals cheaper would be to find actions with differences in costs to replace actions with differences in benefits. I’m not sure how to do that – just a thought.

7 responses to “Cheap signaling

  1. It seems really hard to change signaling conventions, though. A lot of signaling is driven by our hunter-gatherer brains, and is not by the conscious desire for more accurate information. In “Spent,” Miller proposes that we have versions of goods that you could only buy if you passed a certain psychometric test; ie you could only get a certain shade of red on your car if your extraversion was +2SD. But this seems silly and unlikely to catch on, even if it’s a better (and cheaper) signal than what we’ve got today.

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  2. The first sort tends toward signaling your intent with effort or a cost. The second type seems to send signals about effort or background, which has high verification costs, but the actual effort put forth (like a given number of years in university) is so great compared to the cost of communicating that effort it’s almost always worth it for honest communicators. so if you could come up with a way of signaling the effort that you spent in order to send a signal it might lower total costs..

    I imagine it would only work with effort-based signaling, but you could use the tendency of humans to misvalue things within certain contexts in order to create the same amount of happiness with less effort. (i.e. most people will take three boxes of chocolate rather than five minus one, unless they really think about it.) And this might actually be easier to pull off with more subjective things.

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  3. Your focusing too much on price and quantity. Very much in the economics mindset. Look and think more about the chocolates as chocolates, and what they suggest. They represent *quality*. They taste good!

    Why does the boyfriend buy the girlfriend an expensive box of chocolates? To add a qualitative experience to her relationship. Why is this required? Because they both have an inbuilt desire for companionship, friendship and sex. Their love/lust for each other is quasi-deterministic, *and they know this* (and know each other knows). There is relatively little inherent quality in a deterministic relationship or trade. Intervention is required to maintain the quality of the relationship, as is experienced by both partners. Evolution intervenes by injections of oxytocin, the human male intervenes by supplying chocolate. This is why he can’t just give her the $50 the box costs.

    Think quality not quantity.

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  4. The celebrity gossip and the six-pack abs are both costly signals. Maintaining a prime physique is not easy, nor is keeping up with celebrities.

    I think you’re mixing up the signal with the way the signal gets transmitted.

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  5. A related and perhaps trivial case is where you would only want to signal something if it were true. Someone saying they are an accountant is credible not only because it would be bad if they were found to be lying – most non-accountants gain nothing by claiming to be accountants. Insofar as people are trying to *match* with jobs or partners they are uniquely suited to, there is not so much need for signalling because there’s not much to gain by faking.

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  6. I think you should pay more attention to the truth/fake case of signaling in particular, because it comes up often. One can make more concrete suggestions in this case.
    Suppose smitten men buy me chocolates, while flatterers buy me chocolates with a radish in them, in hopes that they can get away one chocolate short when I offer one to them.
    I could
    1) Check for radishes (increase the chance of identifying a fake signal. Notice the cost to me. Increases the differential between true signaling )
    2) Care less about chocolates (reduce the benefit of both true and false signaling, which increases the benefit differential between true signaling for smitten men and false signaling for flatterers)
    3) Demand expensive chocolates (increase the cost of both true and false signaling, which increases the cost differential between true signaling for smitten men and and false signaling for flatterers)
    4) Like only genuine chocolates more, for example only if I ate a real one (increase the smitten/flatterer differential for true signaling since they care about my opinion less, which increases the benefit differential)
    5) Knock the teeth out of anyone who gives me a radish (increase the penalty for discovered false signaling)

    I count
    1) Cost of sending true signal for in-group
    2) Cost of sending true signal for out-group
    3) Cost of sending fake signal for out-group

    4) Benefit of apparently true signal for in-group
    5) Benefit of apparently false signal for in-group
    6) Benefit of apparently true signal for out-group
    7) Benefit of apparently false signal for out-group

    8) Chance true signaling is correctly identified for in-group
    9) Chance true signaling is correctly identified for out-group
    10) Chance false signaling is correctly identified for out-group

    10 variables seem more appropriate in this specific common case, not 4.
    (In the chocolate example, I assume 8 and 9 are both 100%: I never mistake a chocolate for a radish. This also makes 5 irrelevant.)

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