Tag Archives: sociology

Fragmented status doesn’t help

David Friedman wrote, and others have claimed similarly:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. … Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. …

…what matters to me is my status as I perceive it; what matters to you is your status as you perceive it. Since each of us has his own system of values, it is perfectly possible for my status as I view it to be higher than yours and yours as you view it to be higher than mine…

Status is about what other people think your status is, but Friedman’s argument is that you at least get some choice in whose views to care about. People split off into many different groups, and everyone may see their group as quite important, so see themselves as quite statusful. Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that. As Will Wilkinson says:

I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

There are two separate issues: whether increasing one person’s status decreases someone else’s status just as much (whether status seeking is constant sum) and whether the total benefits from status come to zero, or to some other positive or negative amount (whether status seeking is zero-sum in particular).

That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

  1. One simple model would be that the difference between each person’s perception of the status ladder is that they each view their own pond as being at the top (or closer to the top than others think). But then when they move up in their pond, someone else in their pond moves down, and vice versa. So it’s still constant sum.
  2. Another simple model would be that people all agree on their positions on the status ladder, but they care a lot more about where they are relative to some of the people on the ladder (those in their pond). For instance I might agree that the queen of England is higher status than me, but mostly just think about my position in the blogosphere.  Here of course status is constant sum (since we don’t disagree on status). But the hope would be that at least the status we care more about isn’t constant sum. But it is. However much I move up relative to people in my pond, people in my pond move down relative to me (a person in their pond). So again involving ponds doesn’t change the constant-sumness of people gaining or losing status.
  3. But perhaps changing the number or contents of the ponds could increase the total status pie? Increasing the number of ponds could make things better – for instance if people measure status as distance from the top of one’s favorite pond. It could also make things worse – for instance if people measure status as the number of people under one in one’s favorite pond. It could also not change the total amount of status, if people measure status as something like proportion of the way up a status ladder. Instead of one big ladder there could be lots of little parallel ladders. This would stop people from having very high or very low status, but not change the total. It seems to me that some combination of these is true. The maker of the best rhubarb pie at the State Fair might feel statusful, but nowhere near as statusful as the president of america. Probably not even as statusful as someone at the 90th percentile of wealth. So I don’t think we just pay attention to the number above us in the group we care about most. Nor just our rank on some ladder – being further up of a bigger ladder is better. So it’s not clear to me that increasing the number of ponds should make for more status, or more enjoyment of status.
  4. Maybe moving people between ponds can help? Will Wilkinson tells of how he moved between ponds until he found one where he had a chance to excel. It seems likely that he feels higher status now. However the people in the ponds he left now have fewer people under them, and their ponds are smaller. Either of these might diminish their status. In his new pond, Will is probably better than others who were already competing. This lowers their status. It’s unclear whether everyone’s more statusful or better off overall than if they had all been in one big pond.

It might sound intuitive that more ponds mean more status for all, but in most straightforward models the number of ponds doesn’t change the size of the status pie.

Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

Motivation on the margin of saving the world

Most people feel that they have certain responsibilities in life. If they achieve those they feel good about themselves, and anything they do beyond that to make the world better is an increasingly imperceptible bonus.

Some people with unusual moral positions or preferences feel responsible for making everything in the world as good as they can make it, and feel bad about the gap between what they achieve and what they could.

In both cases people have a kind of baseline that they care especially about. In the first case they are usually so far above it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings. In the second case they are often so far below it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings.

Games are engaging when you have a decent chance at both winning and losing. Every move you make matters, so you long to make that one more move. 

I expect the same is true of motivating altruistic consequentialists. I’m not sure how to make achievements on the margin more emotionally salient, but perhaps you do?

What’s wrong with advertising?

These two views seem to go together often:

  1. People are consuming too much
  2. The advertising industry makes people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want, worsening the problem

The reasoning behind 1) is usually that consumption requires natural resources, and those resources will run out. It follows from this that less natural-resource intensive consumption is better* i.e. the environmentalist prefers you to spend your money attending a dance or a psychologist than buying new clothes or jet skis, assuming the psychologist and dance organisers don’t spend all their income on clothes and jet skis and such.

How does the advertising industry get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy? One practice they are commonly accused of is selling dreams, ideals, identities and attitudes along with products. They convince you (at some level) that if you had that champagne your whole life would be that much more classy. So you buy into the dream though you would have walked right past the yellow bubbly liquid.

But doesn’t this just mean they are selling you a less natural-resource-intensive product? The advertisers have packaged the natural-resource intensive drink with a very non-natural-resource intensive thing – classiness – and sold you the two together.

Yes, maybe you have bought a drink you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. But overall this deal seems likely to be a good thing from the environmentalist perspective: it’s hard to just sell pure classiness, but the classy champagne is much less resource intensive per dollar than a similar bottle of unclassy drink, and you were going to spend your dollars on something (effectively – you may have just not earned them, which is equivalent to spending them on leisure).

If the advertiser can manufacture enough classiness for thousands of people with a video camera and some actors, this is probably a more environmentally friendly choice for those after classiness than most of their alternatives, such as ordering stuff in from France. My guess is that in general, buying intangible ideas along with more resource intensive products is better for the environment than the average alternative purchase a given person would make.  There at least seems little reason to think it is worse.

Of course that isn’t the only way advertisers make people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want. Sometimes they manufacture fake intangible things, so that when you get the champagne it doesn’t really make you feel classy. That’s a problem with dishonest people in every industry though. Is there any reason to blame ‘advertisers’ rather than ‘cheats’?

Another thing advertisers do is tell you about things you wouldn’t have thought of wanting otherwise, or remind you of things you had forgotten about. When innovators and entrepreneurs do this we celebrate it. Is there any difference when advertisers do it? Perhaps the problem is that advertisers tend to remind you of resource intensive, material desires more often than they remind you to consume more time with your brother, or to meditate more. This is somewhat at odds with the complaint that they try to sell you dreams and attitudes etc, but perhaps they do a bit of both.

Or perhaps they try to sell you material goods to satisfy longings you would otherwise fulfil non-materially? For instance recommending new clothes where you might otherwise have sought self-confidence through posture or public speaking practice or doing something worthy of respect. Some such effect seems plausible, though I doubt a huge one.

Overall it seems advertisers probably have effects in both directions. It’s not clear to me which is stronger. But insofar as they manage to package up and sell feelings and identities and other intangibles,  those who care for the environment should praise them.

*This is not to suggest that I believe natural resource conservation is particularly important, compared to using human time well for instance.

Why we love unimportant things

Consider all the things humans have ever invented. On average, the ones that have been adopted by the most people should be the most useful ones. This seems to be roughly what has happened.

Now consider the ones we get really excited about, and identify with, and celebrate. These are the ones that are not widely adopted. Chairs have been adopted by everyone, because they are great. Nobody ever mentions this. You might think they are just taken for granted because they are old. But consider skis. Skis have been around forever. But they are more controversial than chairs: they have never caught on with some people. Now notice that people who do like skis actually rave about them, and think about them, and consider themselves skiing enthusiasts.

Here are some more unpopular and raved about innovations: drying fruit in the sun, dancing, the iphone, the gin and tonic, the internet, Christianity, watercolour painting, eating a larger meal at lunch time than in the evening, sexual promiscuity, tea

Here are popular uncelebrated innovations: the escalator, the hat, the mobile phone (this was on the other list back when they were rare), the phillips head screwdriver, the computer, queues, tv, bread, floors

Here are the closest things I can think of to counterexamples: the internet (really fits in the first category, but many people who love it must rarely contact with those who don’t and vice versa. Then again people who rave about it often mean to support quite extreme and unorthodox use of it), anti-racism (virtually everyone seems to think they like it, but the ones who rave about it do at least seem to think that others do not), people rave about anything they consciously want at that moment (e.g. they have been standing for ages and they find a chair, or someone brings them a big cake) though they still don’t tend to speak up that item in general or identify with it, sex.

So it seems that we largely celebrate the things that are least important to our actual wellbeing. It even looks to me like the less consensus there is on the value of something, the more impassioned are its fans. At the extreme, when people make up their very own theory or cheesecake or whatever they can often become quite obsessed.

I take all this as a sign that we basically celebrate stuff to draw attention to our identities, not because it’s important.

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.

Taking chances with dinner

Splitting up restaurant bills is annoying.

Good friends often avoid this cost by one of them paying for both one time and the other doing it next time, or better yet, by not keeping track of whose turn it is and it evening out in the long term.

Coins before Euro - European Coins In Circulation

Image via Wikipedia

It’s harder to do this with lesser friends and non-friends who one doesn’t anticipate many meals with because one expects to be exploited by a continual stream of free-riders who never offer to pay, or to have to always pay to show everyone that you are not one of those free-riders, or some other annoying equilibrium.

There is an easy way around this. Flip a coin. Whoever loses pays the whole bill.

Why don’t people do this?

Here are some possible reasons, partly inspired by conversations with friends:

 They don’t think of it

Coins have been around a long time.

It’s hard to have a coin that both people agree is random

One person flips and the other calls it?

They are risk averse

Meals are a relatively small cost that people pay extremely often. They should expect a pretty fair distribution in the long run. If the concern is having to pay for fifty people at once when your income is not huge, either restrict the practice to smaller groups or keep the option of opting out open.

Using a randomising method such as a coin displays distrust, which is rude, but not using one would be costly because you don’t actually trust people

A coin could also display your own intention to be fair. And it doesn’t seem like such a big signal of distrust – I would not be offended if someone offered this deal.

Buying meals for others is a friendly and meaningful gesture – being forced to do it upon losing a bet sullies that ideal somehow

Maybe – I don’t know how this would work

Asking makes you look weird

This is an all purpose reason for not doing anything differently. But sometimes people do change social norms – what was special about those times?

Sharing in the bill feels like contributing to something alongside others, which is a better feeling than paying all of it against your will, or than not contributing at all.

Maybe – I feel pretty indifferent about the whole emotional experience personally.

There are many inconvenient small payments that seem like they could be improved by paying a larger amount occasionally with some small probability. Yet I haven’t seen such a method put to use anywhere.

Cheap signaling


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.

How much do you really love the internet?

Would you give up the internet for a million dollars?

Many people say they would not. If you are one of them, and in a committed relationship, which of the following is true:

a) You would also not give up your partner for a million dollars

b) The internet is more valuable to you than your partner

The first one looks safer. But people change partners a lot, which suggests for many there is much less than a million dollars expected difference between one’s partner and the next best alternative, since the next best alternative frequently scales that gap and becomes the best. If every time a person changed partners the relative value of the new and old partners had changed by around two million dollars in the new partner’s favor, people should pretty soon stop expecting their current partner to be worth so much in the long run.

It’s easy to offer the internet endless love while nobody ever offers you much reward for giving it up. Relationships are an interesting ‘sacred value’ to compare because we really are frequently in a position to give one up permanently for some other benefit.

Hidden philosophical progress

Bertrand Russell:

If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences…this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton’s great work was called ‘the mathematical principles of natural philosophy’. Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology. Thus, to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

I often hear this selection effect explanation for the apparently small number of resolved problems that philosophy can boast. I don’t think it necessarily lessens this criticism of philosophy however. It matters whether the methods that were successful at  providing insights in what were to become fields like psychology and astronomy – those which brought definite answers within reach – were methods presently included in philosophy. If they were not, then the fact that the word ‘philosophy’ has come to apply to a smaller set of methods which haven’t been successful does not particularly suggest that such methods will become  successful in that way*. If they were the same methods, then that is more promising.

I don’t know which of these is the case. I also don’t actually know how many resolved problems philosophy has. If you do, feel free to tell me. I start a PhD in philosophy in the Autumn, and haven’t officially studied it before, so I am curious about its merits.

*Note that collecting resolved problems is only one way philosophy might be valuable. Russell points out that philosophy has been productive at making us less certain about things we thought we knew, which is important information.