Tag Archives: signaling

The appeal of fictional conflict

Robert Wiblin asks why stories celebrate conflict rather than compromise:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society…it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds…

We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

Incidentally, the one line I still remember from Avatar:

They’re not going to give up their home — they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want.

Nothing at all…oh, except control over the destruction of everything they care about. You’re right, you really have no bargaining power. As Rob elaborates further, the premise of the extreme conflict was so flimsy, one must infer that it was pretty important to have an extreme conflict.

Rob guesses the popularity of such stubborn warring in our stories is to do with what we subconsciously want our tastes to say about us. When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.

I think he might be roughly right. But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?

I think because there is no point in demonstrating that you will compromise. As a default, everyone can be expected to compromise, because it’s the rational thing to do at the time. However it’s often good to look like you won’t easily compromise, so that other people will try to win you over with better deals. Celebrating ruthless adherence to idealistic principles is a way of advertising that you are insane, for the purpose of improving your bargaining position. If you somehow convince me that you’re the kind of person who would die fighting for their magic tree, I’ll probably try to come up with a pretty appealing deal for you before I even bring up my interest in checking out the deposits under any trees you have.

Of course the whole point of being a bloody-minded idealist is lost if you keep it a secret. So you probably won’t do that. Which means just not going out of your way to celebrate uncompromising fights to the death is a credible signal of willingness to compromise.

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.

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.

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?

Why are promisers innocent?

It is generally considered unethical to break promises. It is not considered unethical to make promises you would have been better off not to make. Yet when a promise is made and then broken, there is little reason in the abstract to suppose that either the past promiser or the present promise breaker made a better choice about what the future person should do.

Wedding Photography

Image from icaromoreno

For instance suppose a married woman has an affair. Much moral criticism is usually directed at her for having the affair, yet almost none is directed at her earlier self for marrying her husband in the first place.

It’s not that the later woman, who broke the promise, caused more harm than the earlier woman. Both of their acts were needed together to cause the broken promise. The later woman would have been acting just fine if the earlier woman hadn’t done what she did.

I think we direct all criticism to the later women who breaks the promise because it is very useful to be seen as someone who thinks its important to keep promises. It is of little use to be seen as the sort of person who doesn’t make stupid promises, except as far as it suggests we are more likely to keep promises.

This seems to me a clear case of morality being self serving. It serves others too in this case as usual, but the particular form of it is chosen to help its owner. Which is not particularly surprising if you think morality is a bunch of useful behaviours evolved like all our other self serving bits and pieces. However if you think it is more like maths – something which is actually out there, and we have somehow evolved to be able to intuitively appreciate – it is more surprising that it self serving like this.