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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.

Multidimensional signaling

What do you infer about a person who has ugly clothing? Probably that they have poor taste (in clothes or subcultures). But it could also be that they are too poor to improve their wardrobe. Or can’t be bothered.

What about someone with poor grades? The obvious inference is that they aren’t so capable at the subject, but it may again be that they can’t be bothered, or that they have more urgent things to do with their time.

And someone who makes clever jokes? Probably that they are smart and naturally funny, but if they had more time or effort to spend on this, it probably helped.

For all kinds of traits that people might try to signal with their behavior, someone can send a better signal if they have more money or time or self-control. Even when the main signal being sent is not usually thought to be about any of those things.

The reason that this interests me: if signals often divide the population into ‘better or richer’ vs. ‘worse or poorer’, I wonder if this would cause us to imagine that being rich is associated with being better, even if the two were entirely independent. (And similarly for wealth in other general-use resources, like self-control and time).

In a simple case, suppose there are just people with pretty clothes (who have good taste, and also the wealth and industriousness to show it) and people with ugly clothes (who either have bad taste, or lack resources or will). Then do observers come to think of ‘rich, go-getter good taste’ type and a ‘poor, lazy, bad taste’ type? Or do they pay more attention to the actual structure of the space, and know for instance that learning that someone really has bad taste does not actually means they are more likely to be lazy or poor?

New Doc 2017-10-15 (1)

A simple example. X marks everyone who don’t signal.

Note that I’m not merely suggesting that a person with more wealth can send signals to look like they are better—that much is clear. I’m suggesting that at a population level, if the wealthier people can’t be distinguished from the better people on some axis, then observers may come to think that the two are associated in general, even if they are not at all.

If so, this would be important, because it would apply in a huge range of cases of signaling. So that the properties of poverty and weak-willedness and such would appear to us to be much worse than they really were.

Signal seeding

What does it say about a person if they never get up before noon?

If they are the first person to exist, it probably says that morning was for some reason a convenient time to sleep.

If they live in parts of modern society, it might say that they are lazy and weak willed.

How did getting up at one time or another come to signal laziness? You still have to get up once per day.

One story I can imagine is that originally there was some weaker reason to get up early. For instance if your work benefited by sunlight, you could get a bit more in. And then since that was a reasonable thing to do, people who didn’t do it looked like they were less good at getting up. Which made getting up early even better thing to do, so that everyone knows that you can.

And then people who had been on the fence before about whether to bother getting up early started to find it worth their while.  Making the remaining noon-sleepers even more weak willed on average. And so it continues, until sleeping until the afternoon strongly suggests laziness.

In general, if an action is a tiny bit good, not doing it can look a tiny bit bad (or stupid, or lazy, or incapable). Which makes it better to do, which makes it look worse to not do it, and so on. And maybe in the end the speck of good that started this disappears, but the value of sending the signal if you can is enough that the equilibrium is stable.

Does this actually happen?

Prosocial manipulation

There is an axis of social calculativeness: whether your speech and social actions were carefully designed for particular outcomes, versus being instinctive responses to the situation.

This is related to an axis of honesty: whether your words represent your actual state. I suppose because the words most likely to produce the best response naively are often not true. Though I’m not sure if this is reliably true: feelings in the moment are often misleading, and honesty is often prudent.

Another axis is selfishness versus pro-socialness: whether your actions are meant to produce good outcomes for you (potentially at the expense of others) or a larger group such as the world.

The calculativeness axis seems widely expected match the selfishness axis well. Manipulative people are bad. I don’t see why they should go together though, in theory. You can say what you feel like in conversation, or say things calculated to achieve goals. Shouldn’t people saying things to achieve goals do so for all kinds of goals, many venerable? In about the same distribution as people doing other things to achieve goals?

A natural question is whether calculated behavior really is reliably selfish, or whether people just feel like it is for some reason. I can think of cases where it isn’t selfish. For instance, a diplomat trying to arrange peace is probably choosing their words very carefully, and with regard to consequences. But it is hard to say how rare those are.

Perhaps we just don’t think of that as being calculative? Or I wonder if we do, and while we like it if peace is arranged, we would still be somewhat wary of a very good diplomat in our own dealings with them. Because even if they are acting for the good of the world, we suspect that it won’t be for our good, if we are the one being calculated about.

After all, we are presumably being led away from whatever our default choice would have been after hearing the person just represent their internal state as came naturally. And moving away from that sounds probably worse, so more likely that manipulation means to exploit us somehow than to secretly help us get an even better outcome. This is closely related to the honesty axis, and would mean ‘manipulative’ doesn’t really imply ‘globally consequentially bad’ so much as ‘dangerous to deal with’.

I am speculating. Are there common positive connotation terms for ‘socially manipulative’ or ‘calculating’? Is that a thing people do?

For signaling? (Part I)


Your T-shirt is embarrassing. Have you considered wearing a less embarrassing T-shirt?

You are suggesting I spend my precious time trying to look good. Well I am good, and so I’m not going to do that. Because signaling is bad. You can tell something is bad when the whole point of it is to have costs. Signaling is showing off. Signaling benefits me at someone else’s equal expense. I won’t wear a less embarrassing T-shirt because to Hell with signaling.

Hmm. That seems wrong. Signaling is about honest communication when the stakes are high—which is often important! And just because it’s called ‘costly’ doesn’t mean it is meant to have costs. It only has to be too costly for liars, and if it’s working then they won’t be doing any signaling anyway. ‘Costly signals’ can be very cheap for those who use them. I think signaling is often wonderful for society.

Give me three examples where it is ‘wonderful’.

Driver’s licences. Showing a driver’s licence is a costly signal of being a decent driver, which communicates something useful honestly, is cheap for the people who are actually good drivers, and lets the rest of society distinguish people who are likely to drive safely from people who are not, which is amazingly great.

Driving tests don’t seem that cheap to me, but I’ll grant that they are probably worth it. Still, this seems like a strange corner case of ‘signaling’ that was explicitly designed by humans. It fits the economic definition of ‘costly signaling’ but if you have to go that far from the central examples to find something socially beneficial, that doesn’t increase my regard for signaling. Next?

One of the most famous examples of signaling is in the job market. Potential candidates show a hirer their qualifications, which allows the hirer to employ more appropriate candidates. You might disagree about whether all of the signals that people use are socially optimal—for instance if education is mostly for signaling, it seems fairly destructive, because it is so expensive. But you must agree that companies do a lot better hiring the people they choose than they would hiring random people they would get if good candidates couldn’t signal their quality. And at least many aspects of the interview process are cheap enough to be totally worth it. For instance, being able to have a polite and friendly conversation about the subject matter.

Of course companies are better off—companies aren’t the people destroying years of their productive lives on deliberately arduous fake work. Or learning a lot of irrelevant but testable skills. Or degrading themselves and society with faux friendliness. And you ignore some other key details, like what the actual alternative would realistically look like. But let’s not go into it—I’ll grant you that hiring probably goes better overall than it would with zero signaling and no replacement, even though the signaling is awful. And more importantly, that the the whole of society on net is probably best off with some kind of signaling there. I don’t know of a good replacement.

Ok, great. So, third—T-shirts. T-shirts signal personality traits. It is free to wear any T-shirt you want, but T-shirts are still costly signals in a sense, because if you aren’t a punk you won’t  know which T-shirt to wear to look like a genuine punk. And if you don’t like ABBA it is more costly for you to wear an ABBA t-shirt than it is for someone who does like them, because you’ll be embarrassed or unhappy at the association. And if you have bad taste, it is hard to know which T-shirt would indicate good taste. This all seems good, because it lets people cheaply find other people with similar interests, and also to learn facts about the people around them, regardless of similarity. Which is why it is socially destructive for you to wear that T-shirt— your taste can’t be that bad, so you are basically lying.

Ok, a fourth: how about when a friend is sick, and you make them tea and soup and put on a movie for them. This is a costly signal that you care about them, or at least  about your continuing friendship with them. Because it is effort for you with no reward if you don’t care much, and are looking to scale down the relationship soon. But aside from the signaling, this is probably a net social benefit—your friend gets soup and tea and a movie at a time when they could especially use them. Plus, feeling cared for instead of uncared for is a real benefit.

Ok, I concede that costly signaling can be honest, cheap, and on net socially beneficial. But I still think it usually isn’t! And I’m not sure how far we can get thinking about specific examples, since there are so many.

Ok, what do you propose?

Talking about our overall impressions. The big picture. Here is mine: the world is full of people pouring real wealth into things whose only use is to be rubbed in the face of those who can’t afford to destroy so much value. Where it isn’t even good for society to be able to distinguish the signalers from the rest.  Letting everyone see who is rich and who is poor, who is socially competent and who is not, who is beautiful, who is smart, who can win at things that only exist to be won at—does this really lead to a great world?

There is much signaling that the world would be better off without. I admit I don’t really know what the balance of good and bad is like. But I disagree that we should be talking about signaling overall. Or even what is best for the world in this particular case. You are not the world. Even signaling that is terrible for the world is often good for you. If you are in a zero-sum game, and you are more worthy than the opponent, then do your best to win! And if you aren’t, then be more worthy!

What if I want what is best for society?

Even then, you don’t serve society by failing at signaling. Just because people fighting to look good is costly for society doesn’t mean that society gains anything by you intentionally losing that fight. If you are directing your resources to society, then it is better for society if you win. Often better enough to warrant the costs of playing. Serve society by winning at signaling and donating the proceeds to society. Wear a well ironed suit. Don’t talk about your erotic porcelain dinosaur collection. Go to university. Try to exercise good taste…

I agree, at least often. But I think you believe in a heuristic that says you should signal about as much and in similar ways as if you were selfish. Because you are on the side of good, so protecting yourself is protecting the good. You see people looking weird and embarrassing themselves in the name of caring about something, and you think they are failing at signaling. And that’s wrong.

Yeah, I guess you should signal a tiny bit less on the margin, in cases where signaling is socially destructive. But it’s such a small thing, I’m not sure it is worth thinking about.

I don’t mean that. Your selfish interests can come apart from society’s interests almost entirely, in signaling. As an extreme case, imagine that you became confident that by far the best cause for improving the world was promoting incest. From a selfish perspective, you probably don’t want to look like you are promoting incest, because there are few worse ways to look in modern society. But from an altruistic perspective, supposing that you were right about incest, it may well be best for you to promote it, because it would do so much for making incest look better, at just the cost of your own reputation.

You should distinguish between wearing a clean shirt—good for your cause—and wearing a shirt that is more respectable because it is not about your cause—which is often bad for your cause. You can’t just use ‘looking good’ as a heuristic, even though it is generally good for your cause when its proponents look good.

That’s an interesting point, and I hadn’t really thought about it. But surely that’s pretty rare. There are systematic reasons that it’s unlikely that there is some cause which is radically more important than any other, and is completely politically unpalateable.

I agree that’s unlikely—just brought it up as a clear example of it being not worth looking good. I think this issue is maybe ubiquitous though, in less clear and extreme cases. For instance, everywhere sophisticated people play it cool, withholding enthusiasm from ideas until they no longer lack enthusiasm, polishing their own image at the expense of the very projects they are most excited about, or would be if they deigned to experience excitement.

A bold claim—I am curious to hear two more examples, but I have a lot of signaling to get done this evening. Same time next week?

Most likely. I hope you are correctly identified as the superior type in all of your endeavors.