Tag Archives: signaling

The appeal of fictional conflict

Robert Wiblin asks why stories celebrate conflict rather than compromise:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society…it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds…

We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

Incidentally, the one line I still remember from Avatar:

They’re not going to give up their home — they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want.

Nothing at all…oh, except control over the destruction of everything they care about. You’re right, you really have no bargaining power. As Rob elaborates further, the premise of the extreme conflict was so flimsy, one must infer that it was pretty important to have an extreme conflict.

Rob guesses the popularity of such stubborn warring in our stories is to do with what we subconsciously want our tastes to say about us. When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.

I think he might be roughly right. But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?

I think because there is no point in demonstrating that you will compromise. As a default, everyone can be expected to compromise, because it’s the rational thing to do at the time. However it’s often good to look like you won’t easily compromise, so that other people will try to win you over with better deals. Celebrating ruthless adherence to idealistic principles is a way of advertising that you are insane, for the purpose of improving your bargaining position. If you somehow convince me that you’re the kind of person who would die fighting for their magic tree, I’ll probably try to come up with a pretty appealing deal for you before I even bring up my interest in checking out the deposits under any trees you have.

Of course the whole point of being a bloody-minded idealist is lost if you keep it a secret. So you probably won’t do that. Which means just not going out of your way to celebrate uncompromising fights to the death is a credible signal of willingness to compromise.

Hidden motives or innocent failure?

There are many ways in which what humans do differs from what they should do if they wanted to achieve the ends they claim to want to achieve. Some of these are obviously because people don’t really want what they say they want. Few people who claim human life is valuable beyond measure are unaware that small amounts of money can save lives overseas for instance.

On the other hand, many cases are obviously innocent failures of imagination or knowledge. The apparent progress humanity has made over recent millennia is not just a winding path through various signaling equilibria; we have actually thought of better stuff to do. The stone age didn’t end because making everything out of stone stopped being a credible sign of a hardworking personality.

In between there are many interesting puzzles where it isn’t clear whether hidden motives or innocent failure are to blame*. Many people strongly prefer innocent failure as a default, but in general if you can think of some improvement to the status quo, it should be pretty surprising if heaps of other people haven’t also thought of it. Even if your idea is ultimately bad, there should be some signs of people having looked into it if its deficiency isn’t obvious. Often it is clear that people have known of apparently good ideas for ages, with no sign of action. So I think there is quite a case for hidden motives explaining many of these puzzles.

Sometimes when I point out such instances, I say something like ‘ha, you aren’t trying to do what you claim – looks like you are secretly trying to do this other thing instead’. Sometimes I say something like ‘if you are trying to do X, maybe you should try doing it in this way that would achieve X rather than that other way that doesn’t seem to so well’.

I’d like to make clear that my choice of explicitly blaming hidden motives vs. suggesting alternatives as though innocent failure were the cause is not necessarily based on how likely these two explanations are. I think either presentation of such a puzzle should suggest both hypotheses to some extent. If I blame hidden motives and you feel you don’t have those hidden motives, you should question whether you are behaving efficiently. If I blame innocent failure, and you don’t feel compelled to fix the failure, you might question your motives.

I expect the truth is usually a confusing mixture of hidden motives and innocent failure. In many such intrapersonal conflicts, it seems at least clear which side outsiders should be on. For instance if two parts of a person’s mind are interested in helping other people and looking like a nice person respectively, then inasmuch as those goals diverge outsiders should side more with the part who wants to help others, because at least others get something out of that.

Outsiders are also often in a good position to do this, due to their controlling influence on the part who wants to look like a nice person. They are the people to whom you must look nice. This means they can often side with the more altruistic part (or even if there isn’t one, for their own interests) just by insisting on higher standards of credible altruistic behaviour before they will be impressed. This is one good reason for pointing out what people should do better if they really cared, even if it seems unlikely that they do. Even if not a single reader really cares, one can at least hope to give them a measure by which to be more judgemental of others’ hypocrisy.

-:-:-

*The other very plausible explanation for a discrepancy between what seems sensible and what people do is always that people are in fact behaving sensibly, and the perplexed observer is just missing something. While this is presumably common, I will ignore it here.

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.

Signaling for a cause

Suppose you have come to agree with an outlandish seeming cause, and wish to promote it. Should you:

a) Join the cause with gusto, affiliating with its other members, wearing its T-shirts, working on its projects, speaking its lingo, taking up the culture and other causes of its followers

b) Be as ordinary as you can in every way, apart from speaking and acting in favour of the cause in a modest fashion

c) Don’t even mention that you support the cause. Engage its supporters in serious debate.

If you saw that a cause had another radical follower, another ordinary person with sympathies for it, or another skeptic who thought it worth engaging, which of these would make you more likely to look into their claims?

What do people usually do when they come to accept a radical cause?

Why are promisers innocent?

It is generally considered unethical to break promises. It is not considered unethical to make promises you would have been better off not to make. Yet when a promise is made and then broken, there is little reason in the abstract to suppose that either the past promiser or the present promise breaker made a better choice about what the future person should do.

Wedding Photography

Image from icaromoreno

For instance suppose a married woman has an affair. Much moral criticism is usually directed at her for having the affair, yet almost none is directed at her earlier self for marrying her husband in the first place.

It’s not that the later woman, who broke the promise, caused more harm than the earlier woman. Both of their acts were needed together to cause the broken promise. The later woman would have been acting just fine if the earlier woman hadn’t done what she did.

I think we direct all criticism to the later women who breaks the promise because it is very useful to be seen as someone who thinks its important to keep promises. It is of little use to be seen as the sort of person who doesn’t make stupid promises, except as far as it suggests we are more likely to keep promises.

This seems to me a clear case of morality being self serving. It serves others too in this case as usual, but the particular form of it is chosen to help its owner. Which is not particularly surprising if you think morality is a bunch of useful behaviours evolved like all our other self serving bits and pieces. However if you think it is more like maths – something which is actually out there, and we have somehow evolved to be able to intuitively appreciate – it is more surprising that it self serving like this.

I am anti-awareness and you should be too

People seem to like raising awareness a lot. One might suspect too much, assuming the purpose is to efficiently solve whatever problem the awareness is being raised about. It’s hard to tell whether it is too much by working out how much is the right amount then checking if it matches what people do. But a feasible heuristic approach is to consider factors that might bias people one way or the other, relative to what is optimal.

Christian Lander at Stuff White People Like suggests some reasons raising awareness should be an inefficiently popular solution to other people’s problems:

This belief [that raising awareness will solve everything] allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges…

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets.  In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference…

So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)…

He seems to suspect that people are not trying to solve problems, but I shan’t argue about that here. At least some people think that they are trying to effectively campaign; this post is concerned with biases they might face. Christian  may or may not demonstrate a bias for these people. All things equal, it is better to solve problems in easy, fun, safe ways. However if it is easier to overestimate the effectiveness of easy, fun, safe things,  we probably raise awareness too much. I suspect this is true. I will add three more reasons to expect awareness to be over-raised.

First, people tend to identify with their moral concerns. People identify with moral concerns much more than they do with their personal, practical concerns for instance. Those who think the environment is being removed too fast are proudly environmentalists while those who think the bushes on their property are withering too fast do not bother to advertise themselves with any particular term, even if they spend much more time trying to correct the problem. It’s not part of their identity.

People like others to know about their identities. And raising awareness is perfect for this. Continually incorporating one’s concern about foreign forestry practices into conversations can be awkward, effortful and embarrassing. Raising awareness displays your identity even more prominently, while making this an unintended side effect of costly altruism for the cause rather than purposeful self advertisement.

That raising awareness is driven in part by desire to identify is evidenced by the fact that while ‘preaching to the converted’ is the epitome of verbal uselessness, it is still a favorite activity for those raising awareness, for instance at rallies, dinners and lectures. Wanting to raise awareness to people who are already well aware suggests that the information you hope to transmit is not about the worthiness of the cause. What else new could you be showing them? An obvious answer is that they learn who else is with the cause. Which is some information about the worthiness of the cause, but has other reasons for being presented. Robin Hanson has pointed out that breast cancer awareness campaign strategy relies on everyone already knowing about not just breast cancer but about the campaign. He similarly concluded that the aim is probably to show a political affiliation.

These are some items given away to promote Bre...

Image via Wikipedia

In many cases of identifying with a group to oppose some foe, it is useful for the group if you often declare your identity proudly and commit yourself to the group. If we are too keen to raise awareness about our identites, perhaps we are just used to those cases, and treat breast cancer like any other enemy who might be scared off by assembling a large and loyal army who don’t like it. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I think our enthusiasm for increased awareness of everything is given a strong push by our enthusiasm for visible identifying with moral causes.

Secondly and relatedly, moral issues arouse a  person’s drive to determine who is good and who is bad, and to blame the bad ones. This urge to judge and blame should  for instance increase the salience of everyone around you eating meat if you are a vegetarian. This is at the expense of giving attention to any of the larger scale features of the world which contribute to how much meat people eat and how good or bad this is for animals. Rather than finding a particularly good way to solve the problem of too many animals suffering, you could easily be sidetracked by fact that your friends are being evil. Raising awareness seems like a pretty good solution if the glaring problem is that everyone around you is committing horrible sins, perhaps inadvertently.

Lastly, raising awareness is specifically designed to be visible, so it is intrinsically especially likely to spread among creatures who copy one another. If I am concerned about climate change, possible actions that will come to mind will be those I have seen others do. I have seen in great detail how people march in the streets or have stalls or stickers or tell their friends. I have little idea how people develop more efficient technologies or orchestrate less publicly visible political influence, or even how they change the insulation in their houses. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is too much awareness raising; it is less effort to do things you already know how to do, so it is better to do them, all things equal. However too much awareness raising will happen if we don’t account for there being a big selection effect other than effectiveness in which solutions we will know about, and expend a bit more effort finding much more effective solutions accordingly.

So there are my reasons to expect too much awareness is raised. It’s easy and fun, it lets you advertise your identity, it’s the obvious thing to do when you are struck by the badness of those around you, and it is the obvious thing to do full stop. Are there any opposing reasons people would tend to be biased against raising awareness? If not, perhaps I should reconsider stopping telling you about this problem and finding a more effective way to lower awareness instead.

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Discrimination: less is more

‘Discrimination’ can mean all sorts of things. One of the main ones, and what it will mean in this post, is differential treatment of people from different groups, due to real or imagined differences in average group features.  Discrimination is a problem because the many people who don’t have the supposed average features of a group they are part of are misconstrued as having them, and offered inappropriate treatment and opportunities as a result. For instance a capable and trustworthy middle aged man may miss out on a babysitting job for which he is truly the best candidate because the parents take his demographic information as reason not to trust him with their children.

This means that ‘discrimination’ is really a misnomer; this problem is due to lack of discrimination. In particular lack of discrimination between members of the groups. For instance if everyone could instantly discriminate between women with different levels of engineering ability, generalizations would be useless, assuming engineering ability is really the issue of interest to the discriminators. Generalizations aren’t even offensive when enough discrimination is possible. Telling a 6’5” Asian man that he’s probably short since he’s Asian is an ineffective and confusing insult.  Even if observers can’t discriminate perfectly, more ability to discriminate means less misrepresentation. For instance a test score doesn’t perfectly determine people’s abilities at engineering, but it is much more accurate than judging by their gender. This is assuming the generalizations have some degree of accuracy, if they are arbitrary it doesn’t make much difference whether you use false generalizations of larger groups or smaller ones.

The usual solution suggested for ‘discrimination’  is for everyone to forget about groups and act only on any specific evidence they have about individuals. Implicitly this advice is to expect everyone to have the average characteristics of the whole population except where individual evidence is available. Notice that generalizing over a larger group like this should increase the misrepresentation of people, and thus their inappropriate treatment.  Recall that that was the original problem with discrimination.

If the parents mentioned earlier were undiscriminating they would be much more trusting of middle aged men, but they would also be less trusting of other demographics such as teenage girls. All evidence they had ever got of any group or type of person being untrustworthy would be interpreted only as weaker evidence that people are untrustworthy. This would reduce the expected trustworthiness of their best candidate, so more often they would not find it worth going out in the first place. Now the man still misses out on the position, but so does the competing teenage girl plus the parents don’t get to go out. Broadening group generalizations to the extreme makes ‘discrimination’ worse, which makes sense when we consider that discriminating between people as much as possible (judging them on their own traits) is the best way to avoid ‘discrimination’.

It may be that something else about discrimination bothers you, for instance if you are most concerned with the equality status of competing social groups, then population level generalizations are the way to go. But if you want to stop discrimination because it causes people to be treated as less than they are, then work on making it easier to discriminate between people further, rather than harder to discriminate between them at all. Help people signal their traits cheaply and efficiently distinguish between others. In the absence of perfect discrimination between individuals, the other end of the spectrum is not the next best thing, it’s the extreme of misrepresentation.

Why is reductionism rude?

People have a similar dislike for many quantification related things:

Why?

Continue reading

How does Facebook make overt self obsession ok?

People who talk about themselves a lot are generally disliked. A likable person will instead subtly direct conversation to where others request the information they want to reveal. Revealing good news about yourself is a good sign, but wanting to reveal good news about yourself is a bad sign. Best to do it without wanting to.

This appears true of most human interaction, but apparently not of that on Facebook. On Facebook, when you are not posting photographs of yourself and updating people on your activities, you are writing notes listing twenty things nobody knows about you, linking people to analyses of your personality, or alerting them to your recent personal and group affiliations. Most of this is unasked for by others. I assume it is similar for other social networking sites.

If over lunch I decided, without your suggestion, to list to you twenty random facts about me, tell you the names of all my new acquintences, and show you my collection of photos of myself, our friendship would soon wane. Why is Facebook different? Here are some reasons I can think of:

  1. It is ok to talk about yourself when asked, and in a space where communication is very public to a group, nobody knows if you were asked by someone else. This seems the case for the self obsessed notes prefaced with ‘seeing as so many of you have nagged me to do this I guess I will reluctantly write a short essay on myself’ and such things, but I doubt it applies the rest of the time.
  2. Most writing on Facebook isn’t directed at anyone, and people are not forced to read it. It is the boredom and annoyance of being forced to hear about other people’s lives that puts people off those who discuss themselves too much, not signaling. This doesn’t explain why people spend so much time reading about one another on Facebook.
  3. Forcing a specific other person to listen to you go on about yourself is a dominance move. Describing yourself endlessly into cyberspace isn’t, as it’s not directed at anyone. This doesn’t explain why it would also look bad to decorate your house with posters of yourself or offer free newsletters about your exploits.
  4. The implicit rules on Facebook say that you must talk about yourself. Everyone is happy with this, as it lets them talk about themselves. So they don’t punish people who talk about themselves a lot there. And thus a new equilibrium was formed. But shouldn’t talking about yourself more still send the same signals? And why wouldn’t this have happened elsewhere?