Speech: Robin Hanson explains human signaling

The Elephant in the Brain, a speech based on his book of the same name, by Robin Hanson:

Although Hanson’s delivery may be a little annoying, I like this speech because of the sheer number of “hidden truths” about society that it explains. It’s a rundown on just how many social norms are facades. What we say about institutions is not how they actually function.

“Pretty good” liars are skilled at faking. But the best liars don’t have to fake, because they believe their own lies. You may be more of a liar than you think. The reason you say you do things is not always why you actually do those things.

Suppose you are trying to explain human behavior to a (high functioning) autistic person to help them understand social norms. If you tell them the reason people say they do things, the autistic person will be given the wrong impression, and may start acting in strange ways. They may respond better if you explain the reason people actually do things (and then tell them you’re not supposed to be up-front about it). Explaining human society on a very literal level is much of what this website is about.

If you become obsessed with “hidden motives,” it is easy to go crazy quickly. You can start believing in conspiracies, and far-right or far-left social theories. But there is a less controversial type of hidden motive: signaling.

Hanson gives an analogy from the animal kingdom: some bird behavior which seems generous and altruistic is in fact zero-sum and fiercely competitive. Generous behavior is status signaling.

Hanson runs through a many examples of human behavior. Some of these, he says, may be very obvious to you. But one might be surprising: everyone has their sacred cow.

Body language: We are never taught how to use body language, but we do it all the time. One way you use body language is with what are called status moves. Oftentimes, you think that you are equals with the person you are talking to, but in fact you are negotiating relative status via body language. Consider how often you would not want to admit what your body language is really communicating.

Laughter: We think that we laugh because things are “funny.” In fact, if you pay careful attention to when and why people laugh, rarely is that exactly the case. You laugh more often in social situations, more when talking than listening, and only 20% of the time in response to anything like a joke. Most laughter a certain social signal, a “play signal.” We don’t admit this to ourselves because our laughter reveals embarrassing things.

Conversation: What is the point of conversation? I used to think the point of talking was to exchange information. But try living out this theory, and you will find yourself talking much less frequently than others (which I used to do). If the purpose was to trade information, than the flow of most conversations doesn’t make much sense. The point of most conversation is actually to “show off,” to appear knowledgeable and pro-social.

Consumption: When we buy things, we aren’t always conscious of why. Sometimes we buy things for their functional features. But it is also pretty common to buy things to “show off” your wealth, taste, character, etc.. Consider how much (or how little) people would buy if there was no competitive status-signaling going on. The products would be advertised much differently.

Art: Insofar as something is “art,” it is made explicitly non-utilitarian. So what purpose does it serve? We prefer art to be rare, original, “impressive” (difficult to make). But from the point of view of evolution, how do we actually benefit from any of those things? Evidently, a lot of art is just an indirect means to admire talented people and flaunt our discerning ability.

Charity: Why do we give to charity? To help people? That is a quite naive. The deeper question: why did we evolve to want to help people, even those outside our tribe? The most obvious/pessimistic answer: to flaunt our generosity. We prefer to give to community causes (church, sporting groups, etc.), of needless variety, and especially when people are watching us, requesting it, or when we’re thinking about mating.

Here is where we start talking about institutions. Here is where things get interesting.

Education: The stated goal of education is learning. Others have convincingly argued that this is not actually the main thing it does. A key component to education is the conferring and denying of status (grades, admissions, etc.) This is not a far-flung conspiracy; this is a well-modeled economic fact.

I got that the point of high school was to test my conscientiousness, but, I thought, aren’t there more efficient ways of doing that? That would be politically incorrect. Schools have to brand themselves as about education overtly, and about ranking discretely.

The main value that universities confer onto students is through the exclusion of others. (But it’s also a bad sign to fail out, so the value is officially conferred via the degree).

People all want to attend the elite universities because they confer the most status (are the most “prestigious”). But these universities confer the most status because the most elite people attend them. And they get the elite students because they are prestigious. It’s a feedback loop that gives the elite colleges an advantage, throwing off typical competitive pressures (the pressure to give the best education experience).

This is sort of similar to the network externalities that social media companies benefit from (discussed here). But also the opposite of that; while social media companies only function when many people use their service, colleges function when many people don’t use their service. They monopolize a zero-sum resource: status.

Even more scathing critiques of education exist; see Peter Thiel’s comments.

Surprising one, to me: Medicine. I used to think that hospitals were the everything-health. I later learned that, while hospitals aren’t useless, they are not that important — compared to living a healthy lifestyle. Regions that spend more on medicine aren’t actually healthier, and just spending more doesn’t seem to help health that much.

Stated goal of medicine: to fight illness and injury. According to Hanson, the actual purpose is to comfort ourselves. People just want to know that others have their back when they (or loved ones) get sick. People are not willing to pay very much for information about doctor/hospital quality. The way we think about healthcare is more like how we think about gifts: signals of caring/compassion.

This explains why we prefer to give healthcare communally (families, firms, nations), and pay way more than we need to.

Religion: Religion is about bonding to a group. People who go to the same church take care of one another. There are many bizarre religious practices that seem to serve no practical purpose. Why do these practices exist? Because they help to weed out out people who are not fully committed to the group. Religions ask a lot from you — so that you can feel devoted, and also prove it.

But people say religion is about belief in the metaphysical. Whichever religion is correct, billions of people are wrong. Their belief still serves a purpose: nothing motivates action like belief does. People need to feel that there is a reason for their religion’s practices, or they will not be able to show the needed commitment.

Politics: We think of ourselves of rational evaluators of issues, arriving at political positions through independent logic. But if that were true, then why, for instance, do we seem to adopt positions in sets? A few examples: I’m not the first one to notice that it’s a bit odd that one’s position on gun control is predictive of their position on global warming, or that one’s position on abortion is predictive with their view on military interventions. Like religion, politics is really about connecting to a tribe.

Other Speech Highlights

Richard Dawkins explains the adaptive valley

Jaan Tallin explains the singularity

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