Tag Archives: signaling

Being useless to express care

Imagine you were aiming to appear to care about something or somebody else. One way you could do it is to work out exactly what would help them and do that. What could possibly look like you care about them more? The first problem here is that onlookers might not know what is really helpful, especially if you had to do any work to figure it out. So they won’t recognize your actions as being it. You would do better to do something that most people believe would be helpful than something that you know would.

Another problem arises if everyone knows the thing is helpful to others, but they also know that you could do the same thing to help yourself. From their perspective, you are probably helping yourself. Here you can solve both problems at once by just doing something that credibly doesn’t help you. People will assume there is some purpose, and if it’s not self serving it’s probably for someone else. You can demonstrate care better with actions which are obviously useless to you and plausibly useful to someone else than actions plausibly useful to you and obviously useful to someone else. Fasting to raise awareness for the hungry looks more sincere than eating to raise money for the hungry.

I wonder if this plays a part in choice of political leaning, explaining why economic left wing supporters are taken to be more caring. Left or right wing economic policies could both be argued to help society. However right wing economic policies are also supported by people who want to maintain control of their possessions, while left wing economic policies should not be except by the long term welfare dependent. This means that if you care about expressing care, you should join the left whether right wing policy looks better or worse for everyone overall. Otherwise you will be mistaken for selfish.  If  this is true then the best way to support right wing policy could be to popularise reasons for selfish people to support left wing policy.

Added 9/2/11: Robin Hanson gives more examples of people giving less usefully to show care.

Why are obvious meanings veiled?

Why do people use veiled language even when both parties likely know the real message? For instance if a boy asks a girl up for coffee after a date, nobody is likely to miss the cliched connotation, so why not be direct?  The same question goes for many other threats, bribes, requests and propositions. Where meaning is reasonably ambiguous, plausible deniability seems a good explanation. However in many cases denial wouldn’t be that plausible and would make you look fairly silly anyway.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker offers six possible explanations for these cases, the last of which I found particularly interesting: People are not embarrassed nearly as much by everyone knowing their failings as long as they aren’t common knowledge (everyone knows that everyone knows etc). Pinker suggests veiled language can offer enough uncertainty that while the other party knows they are very likely being offered sex for instance (which is all you need them to know), they are still unsure of whether you know that they know this, and so on. Plausible deniability of common knowledge means if they decline you, you can carry on with yours pride intact more easily, because status is about what everyone thinks everyone thinks etc your status is, and that hasn’t changed.

This has some problems. Does any vagueness preclude mutual knowledge? We don’t act as though it does; there is always some uncertainty. Plus we take many private observations into account in judging others’ status, though you could argue that this is to judge how they are usually judged, so any aspect of a person you believe others haven’t mostly seen should not inform you on their status. Pinker suggests that a larger gap between the level of vagueness that precludes mutual knowledge and that which allows plausible deniability is helped by people attributing their comprehension of veiled suggestions to their own wonderful social intuition, which makes them less sure that the other knows what they understood.

But veiled comments often seem to allow no more uncertainty than explicit ones. For instance, ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’ is about as obvious as ‘do the washing up’, but somehow more polite because you are informing not commanding, though the listener arguably has less choice because angrily proclaiming that they are not your slave is off the table. Perhaps such phrases are idioms now, and when they were alive it really was less obvious what commenting on the wonderfulness of clean dishes implied. It seems unlikely.

Some other explanations from Pinker (I omit one because I didn’t understand it enough to paraphrase at the time and don’t remember it now):

The token bow: indirection tells the listener that the speaker has made an effort to spare her feelings or status. e.g. requests made in forms other than imperative statements are designed to show you don’t presume you may command the person. I’m not sure how this would explain the coffee offer above. Perhaps in the existing relationship asking for sex would be disrespectful, so the suggestion to continue the gradual shift into one anothers’ pants is couched as something respectful in the current relationship?

Don’t talk at all, show me: most veiled suggestions are a request to alter the terms of the relationship, and in most cases people don’t speak directly about the terms of relationships. This is just part of that puzzle. This explanation doesn’t explain threats or bribes well I think. By the time you are talking idly about accidents that might happen, awkwardness about discussing a relationship outright is the least of anyone’s worries. Also we aren’t squeamish about discussing business arrangements, which is what a bribe is.

The virtual audience: even if nobody is watching, the situation can be more easily transmitted verbally if the proposition is explicitly verbal. If the intent is conveyed by a mixture of subtler signals, such as tone, gestures and the rest of the interaction, it will be harder to persuade others later that that the meaning really was what you say it was, even if in context it was obvious. This doesn’t seem plausible for many cases. If I tell you that someone discreetly proffered a fifty dollar note and wondered aloud how soon their request might be dealt with, you – and any jury – should interpret that just fine.

Preserving the spell: some part of the other person enjoys and maintains the pleasant illusion of whatever kind of relationship is overtly demonstrated by the words used. Pinker gives the example of a wealthy donor to a university, who is essentially buying naming rights and prestige, but everyone enjoys it more if you have fancy dinners together and pretend that the university is hoping for their ‘leadership’. This doesn’t explain why some transactions are made with a pretense and some aren’t. If I buy an apartment building we don’t all sit down at a fancy dinner together and pretend that I am a great hero offering leadership to the tenants. Perhaps the difference is that if a donation is a purchase, part of the purchased package is a reputation for virtue. However outsiders aimed at mostly don’t see what the transaction looks like. For other cases this also doesn’t seem to explain. While one may want to preserve the feeling that one is not being threatened, why should the threatening one care? And seducing someone relies on the hope of ending air of platonic aquaintence.

Another explanation occurs to me, but I haven’t thought much about whether it’s applicable anywhere. Perhaps once veiled language is used for plausible deniability in many cases, there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. In those cases you might use veiled language to imply you are trying, but be less subtle so as not to succeed. For instance once most men use veiled come ons, for you to suggest anything explicitly to a girl would show you have no fear of rejection. She mightn’t like being thought either so predictable or of such low value, so it is better to show respect by protecting yourself from rejection.

None of these explanations seem adequate, but I don’t have a good enough list of examples to consider the question well.

Treat conspicuous consumption like hard nipples?

Robin asked, in relation to correlations between sexual prompts and apparently innocent behaviors:

So what would happen if we all became conscious of the above behaviors being strong clues that men are in fact actively trying for promiscuous short term sex?  Would such behaviors reduce, would long term relations become less exclusive, or what?  Maybe we just couldn’t admit that these are strong clues?

It isn’t usually activeness that people mind most in others’ wrongdoings, but conscious intention. These usually coincide, but when they don’t we are much more forgiving of  unintentional actions, however active. So if it became known that an interest in cars or charity was a symptom of sexual desire I think it would be seen as similar to those other ‘actions’ that show sexual desire; a bad message to your spouse about your feelings, but far from a conscious attempt to be unfaithful.

While it’s not a crime to have physical signs of arousal about the wrong person, I assume it’s considered more condemnable to purposely show them off to said person. I think the same would go for the changes in interests above; if everyone knew that those behaviours were considered signs of sexual intent, realising you had them and purposely allowing potential lovers to see them would be seen as active unfaithfulness, so you would be expected to curb or hide them. Most people would want to hide them anyway, because showing them would no longer send the desired signal. Other activities are presumably popular for those interested in sex exactly because conspicuously wanting sex doesn’t get sex so well. If certain interests became a known signal for wanting sex they would be no more appealing than wearing a sign that says ‘I want sex’. This would be a shame for all those who are interested in charity and consumerism  less contingently.

Why are wine competitions unpredictable?


  • Entering wine competitions costs $x, and winning gets you $y (>x) in increased profits
  • Wine competitions A, B and C are in that order chronologically, and all give medals to a third of entrants
  • There are nine wines, called 1-9
  • There is fair agreement between wine authorities at the competitions on good wine, such that if your wine wins one competition it is almost certain to win the next.

What should the wine sellers do to maximize money? All enter A. Three win. Those three go on to enter B, and its winner enters C, while the others stay out unless y is radically > x, as they are likely to lose again.

That means that A makes $9x, B $3x and C $x. An easy way for B and C to increase their profits is to be less predictable then. At the extreme of unpredictability, all wines would enter all competitions, and A, B and C would all make $9x profits, and medals wouldn’t mean much about wine quality.

Of course when people notice that prizes correlate less with wine quality they ignore prizes more, and competitions must charge less entry. In reality most consumers get virtually no evidence of the quality of wine by drinking it, so they are only likely to notice whether better wines get prizes if someone pays attention to the statistics and finds no correlation between winners in different competitions. Someone did this, and found that, prompting me to try to explain it. What do you think?

A status theory of blog commentary

Commentary on blogs usually comes in two forms: comments there and posts on other blogs. In my experience, comments tend to disagree and to be negative or insulting much more than links from other blogs are. In a rough count of comments and posts taking a definite position on this blog, 25 of 35 comments disagreed, while 1 of 12 posts did, even if you don’t count another 11 posts which link without comment, a seemingly approving act. Why is this?

Here’s a theory. Lets say you want status. You can get status by affiliating with the right others. You can also get status within an existing relationship by demonstrating yourself to be better than others in it. When you have a choice of who to affiliate with, you will do better not to affiliate at all with most of the people you could demonstrate your superiority to in a direct engagement, so you mostly try to affiliate with higher status people and ignore or mock from a distance those below you. However when it is already given that you affiliate with someone, you can gain status by seeming better than they.

These things are supported if there is more status conflict in less voluntary relationships than in voluntary ones, which seems correct. Compare less voluntary relationships in workplaces, schoolgrounds, families, and between people and employees of organizations they must deal with (such as welfare offices) with more voluntary relationships such as friendships, romantic relationships, voluntary trade, and acquaintanceships.

This theory would explain the pattern of blog commentary. Other bloggers are choosing whether to affiliate with your blog, visibly to outside readers. As in the rest of life, the blogger would prefer to be seen as up with good bloggers and winning stories than to be bickering with bad bloggers, who are easy to come by. So bloggers mostly link to good blogs or posts and don’t comment on bad ones.

Commenters are visible only to others in that particular comments section. Nobody else there will be impressed or interested to observe that you read this blogger or story, as they all are. So the choice of whether to affiliate doesn’t matter, and all the fun is in showing superiority within that realm. Pointing out that the blogger is wrong shows you are smarter than they, while agreeing says nothing. So commenters tend to criticize where they can and not bother commenting on posts they agree with.

Note that this wouldn’t mean opinions are shaped by status desire, but that there are selection effects so that bloggers don’t publicize their criticisms and commenters don’t publicize what they like.