Replacing expensive costly signals

I feel like there is a general problem where people signal something using some extremely socially destructive method, and we can conceive of more socially efficient ways to send the same signal, but trying out alternative signals suggests that you might be especially bad at the traditional one. For instance, an employer might reasonably suspect that a job candidate who did a strange online course instead of normal university would have done especially badly at normal university.

Here is a proposed solution. Let X be the traditional signal, Y be the new signal, and Z be the trait(s) being advertised by both. Let people continue doing X, but subsidize Y on top of X for people with very high Z. Soon Y is a signal of higher Z than X is, and understood by the recipients of the signals to be a better indicator. People who can’t afford to do both should then prefer Y to X, since Y is is a stronger signal, and since it is more socially efficient it is likely to be less costly for the signal senders.

If Y is intrinsically no better a signal than X (without your artificially subsidizing great Z-possessors to send it) then in the long run Y might only end up as strong a sign as X, but in the process, many should have moved to using Y instead.

(A possible downside is that people may end up just doing both forever.)

For example, if you developed a psychometric and intellectual test that only took half a day and predicted very well how someone would do in an MIT undergraduate degree, you could run it for a while for people who actually do MIT undergraduate degrees, offering prizes for high performance, or just subsidizing taking it at all. After the best MIT graduates say on their CVs for a while that they also did well on this thing and got a prize, it is hopefully an established metric, and an employer would as happily have someone with the degree as with a great result on your test. At which point an impressive and ambitious high school leaver would take the test, modulo e.g. concerns that the test doesn’t let you hang out with other MIT undergraduates for four years.

I don’t know if this is the kind of problem people actually have with replacing apparently wasteful signaling systems with better things. Or if this doesn’t actually work after thinking about it for more than an hour. But just in case.

The Principled Intelligence Hypothesis

I have been reading the thought provoking Elephant in the Brain, and will probably have more to say on it later. But if I understand correctly, a dominant theory of how humans came to be so smart is that they have been in an endless cat and mouse game with themselves, making norms and punishing violations on the one hand, and cleverly cheating their own norms and excusing themselves on the other (the ‘Social Brain Hypothesis’ or ‘Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis’). Intelligence purportedly evolved to get ourselves off the hook, and our ability to construct rocket ships and proofs about large prime numbers are just a lucky side product.

As a person who is both unusually smart, and who spent the last half hour wishing the seatbelt sign would go off so they could permissibly use the restroom, I feel like there is some tension between this theory and reality. I’m not the only unusually smart person who hates breaking rules, who wishes there were more rules telling them what to do, who incessantly makes up rules for themselves, who intentionally steers clear of borderline cases because it would be so annoying to think about, and who wishes the nominal rules were policed predictably and actually reflected expected behavior. This is a whole stereotype of person.

But if intelligence evolved for the prime purpose of evading rules, shouldn’t the smartest people be best at navigating rule evasion? Or at least reliably non-terrible at it? Shouldn’t they be the most delighted to find themselves in situations where the rules were ambiguous and the real situation didn’t match the claimed rules? Shouldn’t the people who are best at making rocket ships and proofs also be the best at making excuses and calculatedly risky norm-violations? Why is there this stereotype that the more you can make rocket ships, the more likely you are to break down crying if the social rules about when and how you are allowed to make rocket ships are ambiguous?

It could be that these nerds are rare, yet salient for some reason. Maybe such people are funny, not representative. Maybe the smartest people are actually savvy. I’m told that there is at least a positive correlation between social skills and other intellectual skills.

I offer a different theory. If the human brain grew out of an endless cat and mouse game, what if the thing we traditionally think of as ‘intelligence’ grew out of being the cat, not the mouse?

The skill it takes to apply abstract theories across a range of domains and to notice places where reality doesn’t fit sounds very much like policing norms, not breaking them. The love of consistency that fuels unifying theories sounds a lot like the one that insists on fair application of laws, and social codes that can apply in every circumstance. Math is basically just the construction of a bunch of rules, and then endless speculation about what they imply. A major object of science is even called discovering ‘the laws of nature’.

Rules need to generalize across a lot of situations—you will have a terrible time as rule-enforcer if you see every situation as having new, ad-hoc appropriate behavior. We wouldn’t even call this having a ‘rule’. But more to the point, when people bring you their excuses, if your rule doesn’t already imply an immovable position on every case you have never imagined, then you are open to accepting excuses. So you need to see the one law manifest everywhere. I posit that technical intelligence comes from the drive to make these generalizations, not the drive to thwart them.

On this theory, probably some other aspects of human skill are for evading norms. For instance, perhaps social or emotional intelligence (I hear these are things, but will not pretend to know much about them). If norm-policing and norm-evading are somewhat different activities, we might expect to have at least two systems that are engorged by this endless struggle.

I think this would solve another problem: if we came to have intelligence for cheating each other, it is unclear why general intelligence per se is is the answer to this, but not to other problems we have ever had as animals. Why did we get mental skills this time rather than earlier? Like that time we were competing over eating all the plants, or escaping predators better than our cousins? This isn’t the only time that a species was in fierce competition against themselves for something. In fact that has been happening forever. Why didn’t we develop intelligence to compete against each other for food, back when we lived in the sea? If the theory is just ‘there was strong competitive pressure for something that will help us win, so out came intelligence’, I think there is a lot left unexplained. Especially since the thing we most want to explain is the spaceship stuff, that on this theory is a random side effect anyway. (Note: I may be misunderstanding the usual theory, as a result of knowing almost nothing about it.)

I think this Principled Intelligence Hypothesis does better. Tracking general principles and spotting deviations from them is close to what scientific intelligence is, so if we were competing to do this (against people seeking to thwart us) it would make sense that we ended up with good theory-generalizing and deviation-spotting engines.

On the other hand, I think there are several reasons to doubt this theory, or details to resolve. For instance, while we are being unnecessarily norm-abiding and going with anecdotal evidence, I think I am actually pretty great at making up excuses, if I do say so. And I feel like this rests on is the same skill as ‘analogize one thing to another’ (my being here to hide from a party could just as well be interpreted as my being here to look for the drinks, much as the economy could also be interpreted as a kind of nervous system), which seems like it is quite similar to the skill of making up scientific theories (these five observations being true is much like theory X applying in general), though arguably not the skill of making up scientific theories well. So this is evidence against smart people being bad at norm evasion in general, and against norm evasion being a different kind of skill to norm enforcement, which is about generalizing across circumstances.

Some other outside view evidence against this theory’s correctness is that my friends all think it is wrong, and I know nothing about the relevant literature. I think it could also do with some inside view details – for instance, how exactly does any creature ever benefit from enforcing norms well? Isn’t it a bit of a tragedy of the commons? If norm evasion and norm policing skills vary in a population of agents, what happens over time? But I thought I’d tell you my rough thoughts, before I set this aside and fail to look into any of those details for the indefinite future.

Why everything might have taken so long

I asked why humanity took so long to do anything at the start, and the Internet gave me its thoughts. Here is my expanded list of hypotheses, summarizing from comments on the post, here, and here.

Inventing is harder than it looks

  1. Inventions are usually more ingenious than they seem. Relatedly, reality has a lot of detail.
  2. There are lots of apparent paths: without hindsight, you have to waste a lot of time on dead ends.
  3. People are not as inventive as they imagine. For instance, I haven’t actually invented anything – why do I even imagine I could invent rope?
  4. Posing the question is a large part of the work. If you have never seen rope, it actually doesn’t occur to you that rope would come in handy, or to ask yourself how to make some.
  5. Animals (including humans) mostly think by intuitively recognizing over time what is promising and not among affordances they have, and reading what common observations imply. New affordances generally only appear by some outside force e.g. accidentally. To invent a thing, you have to somehow have an affordance to make it even though you have never seen it. And in retrospect it seems so obvious because now you do have the affordance.

People fifty thousand years ago were not really behaviorally modern

  1. People’s brains were actually biologically less functional fifty thousand years ago.
  2. Having concepts in general is a big deal. You need a foundation of knowledge and mental models to come up with more of them.
  3. We lacked a small number of unimaginably basic concepts that it is hard to even imagine not having now. For instance ‘abstraction’, or ‘changing the world around you to make it better’.
  4. Having external thinking tools is a big deal. Modern ‘human intelligence’ relies a lot on things like writing and collected data, that aren’t in anyone’s brain.
  5. The entire mental landscapes of early people was very different, as Julian Jaynes suggests.  In particular, they lacked self awareness and the ability to have original thought rather than just repeating whatever they usually repeat.

Prerequisites

  1. Often A isn’t useful without B, and B isn’t useful without A. For instance, A is chariots and B is roads.
  2. A isn’t useful without lots of other things, which don’t depend on A, but take longer to accrue than you imagine.
  3. Lots of ways to solve problems don’t lead to great things in the long run. ‘Crude hacks’ get you most of the way there, reducing the value of great inventions.

Nobody can do much at all

  1. People in general are stupid in all domains, even now. Everything is always mysteriously a thousand times harder than you might think.
  2. Have I tried even making rope from scratch? Let alone inventing it?

People were really busy

  1. Poverty traps. Inventing only pays off long term, so for anyone to do it you need spare wealth and maybe institutions for capital to fund invention.
  2. People are just really busy doing and thinking about other things. Like mating and dancing and eating and so on.

Communication and records

  1. The early humans did have those things, we just don’t have good records. Which is not surprising, because our records of those times are clearly very lacking.
  2. Things got invented a lot, but communication wasn’t good/common enough to spread them. For instance because tribes were small and didn’t interact that much).

Social costs

  1. Technology might have been seen as a sign of weakness or laziness
  2. Making technology might make you stand out rather than fit in
  3. Productivity shames your peers and invites more work from you
  4. Inventions are sometimes against received wisdom

Population

  1. There were very few people in the past, so the total thinking occurring between 50k and 28k years ago was less than in the last hundred years.

Value

  1. We didn’t invent things until they became relevant at all, and most of these things aren’t relevant to a hunter-gatherer.
  2. Innovation is risky: if you try a new thing, you might die.

Orders of invention

  1. First order inventions are those where the raw materials are in your immediate surroundings, and they don’t require huge amounts of skill. My intuition is mostly that first order inventions should have been faster. But maybe we did get very good at first order ones quickly, but it is hard to move to higher orders.
  2. You need a full-time craftsman to make most basic things to a quality where they are worth having, and we couldn’t afford full-time craftsmen for a very long time.
  3. Each new layer requires the last layer of innovation be common enough that it is available everywhere, for the next person to use.

Why did everything take so long?

One of the biggest intuitive mysteries to me is how humanity took so long to do anything.

Humans have been ‘behaviorally modern’ for about 50 thousand years. And apparently didn’t invent, for instance:

This kind of thing seems really weird introspectively, because it is hard to imagine going a whole lifetime in the wilderness without wanting something like rope, or going a whole day wanting something like rope without figuring out how to make something like rope. Yet apparently people went for about a thousand lifetimes without that happening.

Some possible explanations:

  1. Inventions are usually more ingenious than they seem. LiveScience argues that it took so long to invent the wheel because “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.” I feel like that would explain why it took a month rather than a day. But a couple of thousand lifetimes?
  2. Knowing what you are looking for is everything. If you sat a person down and said, “look, how do you attach a stationary platform to a rolling thing?” they could figure it out within a few hours, but if you just give them the world, they don’t think about whether a stationary platform attached to a rolling thing would be useful, so “how do you attach a stationary platform to a rolling thing” doesn’t come up as a salient question for a couple of thousand lifetimes.
  3. Having concepts in general is a big deal, and being an early human who had never heard of any invention was a bit like being me when I’m half asleep.
  4. Everything is always mysteriously a thousand times harder than you might think. Consider writing a blog post. Why haven’t I written a blog post in a month?
  5. Others?

Rules of variety

At some point in high school I noticed an interesting thing about my choice of essay topics: it was definitely not allowed to be the same choice of topics that anyone else had.

One reason this seemed strange at the time was that I had never explicitly noticed this constraint or intended it, even though it was doing a lot of work. It was such a deeply assumed part of the basic rules of behavior that I didn’t know it was there.

But it seemed extra strange once I noticed it, because it happened in the context of the rest of my classmates as one blithely ignoring this absolute law of reasonable behavior and all writing about the same hackneyed thing. Which probably wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do if I had set out to write the most surprising essay I could. So, apparently other people didn’t even have this rule, though it seemed so inbuilt in me.

And this wasn’t just a failure to understand the rules of that assignment—I realized then that I had been assuming this constraint for every essay, and um, perhaps everything.

(In retrospect ‘maybe you are trying to be different and other people aren’t’ looks like an obvious explanation for the perplexing fact that I was different and other people weren’t. But I was used to knowing about things I was doing intentionally, and I was only trying to be different in the sense that I currently try not to murder people—it would be so wrong that it doesn’t cross my mind as a possibility. But while unconscious, this is a very effective form of intention.)

Years later, I think other people actually do have this rule, or similar rules. They just vary by topic, and I happened to be unusual on the topic of high school essays. But I think implicit constraints like this are actually pretty common, and usually feel too natural to be noticed, even while they entirely warp our behavior. I don’t mean ‘assumptions that we don’t notice’ in general, but in particular ones about how similar or dissimilar out behavior should be to others. I rarely hear these things spoken of, except to remark when they are broken, without comment on what they actually are or consideration as to whether they should be there.

Some examples of actions I think you would avoid to at least some extent, or make an excuse for:

  • Showing up in the same outfit as someone else
  • Naming your children the same names as your friend’s children
  • Decorating your room exactly the same way as your housemate (a friend of mine actually moved to a different room in the same shared house, leaving his art behind for the appreciative incoming resident, and replacing it with identical art in his new room. This seems widely considered weird.)
  • Using the same unusual adjective multiple times in the same article without it making an intentional point
  • Answering ‘how are you?’ with the same contentful description of your state as the one you just heard, without comment
  • Getting the same unusual car as your colleague
  • Using a turn of phrase that has been used many times before
  • Doing a thing that is trite, hackneyed, cliche, or stale
  • Going on holiday to the same place your friend just did
  • Doing a project that is basically the same as one someone else did, without it being connected to theirs
  • Using the same stylistic touches that others use (e.g. even though xkcd is widely considered good, if I draw comics that look just like xkcd, it would be weird)
  • Copying too many of anyone’s personal habits when you are not trying to flirt weirdly with them
  • Showing up to prom in the same car as someone else

This may all sound pretty unimportant. Ok, society has to support more dress variety than would otherwise be optimal. Worse things happen. But I suspect this also shows up in intellectual activities and strategic decisions. And having random unacknowledged rules driving decisions in those places strikes me as more terrifying.

For instance, discussing how surveyed machine learning researchers expect human-level AI further out now than they did before the recent ML boom, someone pointed out to me that of course people are going to be pessimistic now, because the interesting thinkers a couple of years ago were optimistic, so optimism is now boring. If that person is right that the opinions of a field on a topic as important as how imminently they are bringing about the end of human dominion are mostly determined by the dynamics of fashionable distances in opinion-space, I say we have a problem.

Other places I’d expect to see this:

  • Aversion to working on too close a question to someone else in your vicinity, if you are not working with them
  • Aversion to just straightforwardly agreeing with another intellectual rather than emphasizing differences
  • Aversion to liking things that are too popular (contrarianism)
  • Aversion to strategies that are too popular, even if that doesn’t affect their effectiveness
  • Not discussing topics once they are too commonly discussed, even if they are not resolved.

It’s old news that opinions move according to fashion. So why is this interesting?

First, I think we usually think of this as a pressure for conformity—for a few thought leaders to choose ideas somewhat freely then all the thought sheeple to follow. I’m claiming there are also strong forces for variety. And these don’t just cancel and give us freedom—they lead to a narrow band of appropriate choices. The next step in the dance has to be a certain distance from the last.

Secondly, since opinions following fashion has been pointed out in the past, it is weird to point it out again. But human memory and salience probably require it to be pointed out sometimes, if we are to actually remember it.

I’m not very confident about all this, beyond the more basic observations. But it leads me to an image of culture evolving like a fractal river delta, every piece curling off into several pieces that are the right distance from it and one another. Which is kind of how culture seems.