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?

15 responses to “Signaling for a cause

  1. Wouldn’t it depend on how credible you are in the relevant domain? If Stephen Hawking announces that he thinks the U.S. is covering up space aliens, I’ll give it some consideration. Similarly, Peter Singer’s ringing endorsement of hard-line vegetarianism is probably more effective than his quietly mentioning the belief, and/or debating its supporters, just because, famous ethicist, hey.

    (I’ll leave translation of this into the bayesian terms for them as who care.)

    (Although starting to think about how that translation might go makes me want to note that there are two relevant prior probabilities here, 1. holding true beliefs about subject matter X, and 2. holding the belief in question, i.e., strongly adopting a position would be most persuasive to rational people who attributed a high 1 and a low 2 to oneself. As a moderately competent left-wing political theorist, for example, I imagine that I could have some persuasive impact on those who knew me if I suddenly came out hard against the minimum wage or something…)

  2. Does “acting modestly” in b) refer to modest presentation or modest efforts? If a) involves more extensive activity aimed to promote said cause than b, then it may well win. When comparing c) against the rest, much depends on the current supply of supporters and critics. C) probably has most impact when one critically addresses some components of the cause in question, while accepting arguments on other points. For example, conservatives who argue for “conservative action strategies on global warming” are probably much better positioned today to spread belief in and concern about global warming since the science has already made good headway on the left. Earlier, when few of any stripe were paying attention, this was less true.

  3. Along the lines of Paul Gowder:

    As you go down the list, the tactics you describe become optimized more for effectiveness at convincing people that you can arrive at the conclusion by using non-crazy reasoning so which tactic is best depends on how likely your audience perceives this prior to your activism.

  4. Different people respond to different ways of persuasion. If you are trying to maximize the effectiveness of your signal, you should understand the other person.

    If I was going to maximize usefulness, I’d segment and then concentrate with different strategies on each segment.

  5. I think causes both expand and gain acceptance at their immediate margins.

    If you want new sympathizers with a general but not (at this point) fervent acceptance of the cause, you want to behave like the average of people who have only just recently converted to agreeing with the cause.

    But a cause also needs more zealous supporters, for purposes of identity, cohesion, organizational effectiveness, etc. Then you should think of outreach as passing along buckets. Less zealous supporters convert those who are most immediately similar to themselves, and if new converts have the potential for greater dedication to the cause, you pass them along to the more zealous supporters. So you want to do is to play a role which relieves the immediate bottleneck of this system, wherever it happens to lie at that point in time.

  6. I’m a big fan of the T-shirt approach. There is just too much amazing in this world for me to successfully feign moderation.

  7. d) Be as high-status as you can in every way, apart from speaking and acting in favour of the cause in a modest fashion

  8. I’m hands-down in favor of A personally, but I can see how all of them would be useful. I think it depends a lot on personality.

  9. I think b) is most effective. People usually do a). That I know of, we don’t actually have that much data, but usually doing a) isn’t a result of rational consideration of how to most effectively advance the cause. People in minority factions will sometimes openly state that they don’t really want a world in which a majority agrees with them, without realizing how frivolous (and a-rational) this makes their group identification seem. People whose identities are tied up with such groups will often act in a way that suggests the same, even if they won’t admit it openly to themselves or others.

  10. d) Join the opposite side and help discredit them by becoming a caricature of the loud and vocal supporters of that cause. Tune your caricature in such a way that you are offputting to everyone but the true believers.

  11. Isn’t there a tradeoff between r-strategies and K-strategies as well? That is, options (b) and (c) may be more likely to persuade any given person, but fewer of one’s friends and acquaintances will be exposed to the ideas at all.

    • Your point holds if one is a high-extroversion individual with a (practically) unending supply of friends and acquaintances. But if one’s social circle is roughly bounded at a moderate-to-small number, embracing the K-strategy (I’m thinking of b, not c) will only delay one’s circle’s exposure to the cause if one isn’t actively avoiding telling some part of one’s circle about the cause.

  12. @JS Allen:

    What if there are more than two sides to the identification struggle? ;)

  13. @Konk – Assuming that you don’t have the luxury of collaborating with other infiltrators, I suppose your best approach would be to affiliate with the faction you perceive to be most threatening to your secret belief.

  14. Pingback: Being worthy of criticism, Chris Hayes, and “The Best of the Left”‘s persistent abuse of the “hypocrisy” argument | skepolitical


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