When I was young my brother and I used to play a game where we would page through books of wild animals or foreign places and on each page pick our favorite one, just for the pleasure of choosing. Driving in the country, looking in a museum, or window shopping in a mall, people point out to one another which things they like or dislike. We choose favorite colors, places, Dr Who incarnations, reality TV contenders, political personalities, reasons for disregarding postmodernism. On hearing the news, meeting new people, or learning gossip, the next step is usually to make a value judgment about the parties involved. Of all the characteristics everything has, the one we are itching to establish first is our own judgment of value.
At first this seems to make sense. How much we like something is key to how we respond to it. However plenty of the things we so keenly evaluate we can’t easily respond to, and don’t try to, apart from voicing our opinion. Do we waste so much time and thought judging things we can’t influence as a sad byproduct of judging things we can influence? It sometimes even looks like we even seek out things to evaluate – a costly byproduct that would be! But perhaps in the distant past we hardly came across anything so far away that we couldn’t influence it? That seems wrong; while we saw less we could also influence less.
The only good explanation I can think of is that the response we do often make to our judgments – voicing them – is the purpose. Why would we want to voice evaluations so? One explanation is that it is in the hope that someone else will fix things for us, but this explanation faces the same problem as our original explanation; most of the things that I can’t affect are no easier for my friends to affect. No matter how much I tell my brother that I like pterodactyls most, he doesn’t do a thing. I don’t get my Dr Who and that cloud I thought was pretty evaporated before anyone lifted a finger.
A last theory is that it’s all about hinting to others what sort of people we are. To that irrelevant preferences should be quite useful, just as our more obviously image-improving activities, such as careful dressing, are. A signaling theory makes the things furthest from our influence better to demonstrate opinions on, as we aren’t constrained by the need to make useful decisions on them. I often make inferences about people from their expressed valuations, as I think everyone does. The knowledge of this presumably influences people’s expressed valuations, as people are almost ubiquitously sensitive to having inferences made about them. If these two things are true, it should be hard for expressed evaluations not to become somewhat repurposed for signaling, and so little reason to restrict them to topics in reach.