Wasteful Signals

One of the great things about competitive markets (in an economic sense) is that they reduce waste. If multiple firms are competing against each other to sell a good, each firm has an incentive to find a new way to produce their good that makes the process cheaper and quicker. This allows each firm to eliminate waste, and over time the efficiency of the market improves, costs come down, and we are able to produce a given thing using less energy and resources.

 

But when we look at living creatures and consider evolution, we don’t always see the same thing happening. “The problem with competitive struggles, however,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “is that they’re enormously wasteful.”

 

The simple view of evolution that I always held was that animal species evolve over time to become better. Survival of the fittest meant that smaller, slower, weaker animals in a population would die out, and we would be left with the best individuals and the best genes reproducing into the future. The resulting population would be smarter, faster, sleeker, and in some ways more efficient. But evolution, it turns out, is more complicated than this simple model, and survival of the fittest is not always the best way to describe how evolution works. There is still a lot of random chance, random accidents, and waste that can occur in evolution.

 

In an earlier post I shared Hanson and Simler’s story about redwood trees competing against themselves to become taller. The trees did not compete to live in as diverse an ecosystem as possible, and if they had, Simler and Hanson suggest the trees could have been much shorter and could have occupied more space. The trees are wasteful, driving toward new heights in a confined area rather than efficiently spreading out and remaining at a smaller size.

 

In many ways we do the same thing. Creating a beautiful painting is wonderful, but it is also a bit wasteful. One reason we may want to create art is to demonstrate that we can do something relatively difficult to impress other people. We deliberately create something that uses resources for no practical value as a way to demonstrate that we have extra resources to burn and extra time to spend practicing and creating art. It is an indirect way to say, look how impressive I am and look how many resources I have that I don’t have to spend my time accumulating more resources and can instead use them in any way I choose.

 

We create art and buy fancy sports cars to be wasteful with resources to show off and signal something about our suitability and desirability as a mate. There are other things happening here of course, but this is a key component. Animals develop expensive plumage to signal to mates. Some birds will build fancy nests with shiny objects in them to catch the eye of a potential mate, and others will battle among each other to show which animal is the most physically dominant. Shows of skill, strength, and suitability as a mate can be very expensive using energy, time, and resources that could otherwise go toward finding more food. Evolution has lead animals to be very wasteful in a way that we would not expect if evolution worked like an ideally functioning market. Evolution is not simply survival of the fittest, sometimes there are other elements that get us to waste a lot of resources in our signaling competitions to pass our genes along. Sometimes evolution is selecting for things that really don’t seem to demonstrate a lot of great fit in a direct sense for a species.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed within.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and resources. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.

The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.

 

Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,

 

“Everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate–by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”

 

The author’s suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along.

Social Brain Hypothesis

The California Redwoods are amazing trees. They stand taller than any other tree, scraping at the sky as they compete among each other for sunlight. The trees can be packed together in a dense manner, all competing for the same light, all pulling massive amounts of water from the ground up enormous heights. What is interesting, however, is that the redwoods are geographically isolated, not stretching out across huge swaths of the continent, but contained within a fairly narrow region. They don’t compete against other species and spread, but mostly compete for sunlight, water, and resources among themselves.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson introduce the redwoods as a way to talk about the Social Brain Hypothesis in humans. The idea is that our brilliant brains developed so that we could compete against each other, not because our brains really helped us outsmart lions or obtain more resources than other animals. The authors write,

 

“The earliest Homo Sapiens lived in small, tight-knit bands of 20 to 50 individuals. These bands were our “groves” or “forests,” in which we competed not for sunlight, but for resources more befitting a primate: food, sex, territory, social status. And we had to earn these things, in part, by outwitting and outshining our rivals.

    This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”

 

I find this super interesting because in many ways we are still fighting among each other as if we were part of a small band of 20 to 50 individuals. We live in a world where food is relatively bountiful (for many but certainly not all) in the United States. We live in a world of online dating where finding a mate is more open to more people. Our “territory” today can be more private than ever and online niche communities can give us a new sense of social status that we could not have obtained in the past if we did not conform to the small groups of our high school, family, or work.

 

We seem to be in a place where we can let go of the pressures that the social brain hypothesis put on our early ancestors, but I don’t see people shedding those pressures very often. We can look at what has driven our species to behave the way we do and see that we don’t need to compete in the same way. We can recognize the great possibilities available to us and move in our own direction, but so often we chose to just show off and do more to impress others as if we still lived in small tribal bands. Rather than branching out, we seem to often retreat back to a group of 20 to 50 and compete internally in a way that wastes resources on our own selfish motives. I think that we should talk more openly about the social brain hypothesis and the ideas that Hanson and Simler present so that we can have a real discussion about how we move forward without pushing everyone to compete for things that we should be able to provide openly with new systems and organizations.

 

Humans will always be competing against each other in one way or another, but I think we are at a point where we can begin to decrease our competition. Our societies are at a point where we can be more constructive and inclusive if we can decide that we don’t need to participate in so many of the competitions that drive the world today and ruin so many of our lives. Changes along these lines would probably encourage us to live in smaller homes, live in a more community focused way, show off less, and help each other more. How we get there and give up some of this competitive nature I am not sure, but I think that we need to move in this direction to act as a global species and solve major problems such as climate change.

Competitive Altruism

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler write about the Arabian babbler, a bird that lives in hierarchical social groups. The small birds are easy prey when isolated on their own, but as a social group they can live in bushes where they are able to take turns on guard duty, protect each other, and forage for food within a given territory. What is interesting about the birds, in the context of Simler and Hanson’s work, is that male birds compete for the opportunity to be altruistic within the group.

 

The dominant male birds will compete to be the top lookout bird, forgoing their own food for the chance to protect the group. They will feed other birds before themselves (sometimes forcefully) and fight to be the toughest group protector. The birds are not just socially altruistic, they are competitively and forcefully altruistic. Hanson and Simler write, “Similar jockeying takes place for the “privilege” of performing other altruistic behaviors,” to highlight the birds competitive nature.

 

The authors place this type of behavior within the context of evolution. The more dominant males show their physical prowess and mental acuity by their altruism rather than just by fighting and pecking lower males to death. Nevertheless, their altruism is equally about setting themselves up to pass on their genes as it is about protecting the group and doing what is best for everyone else. This type of behavior is relatively easy to connect back to humans. We pose everything we do as being good for the whole, but often we take actions to better our chances of impressing a mate or to pad our LinkedIn profile.

 

We even go out of our way to compete to be altruistic at times. In small groups where we want to impress someone to further our career, we will compete to take on the most challenging jobs, to write the best report, or to do the least glamorous job so that we can be praised for doing the dirty but necessary work. Our altruism is not always about altruism, sometimes it is much more selfish than we want to let on. As Hanson and Simler close the anecdote about the birds, “babblers compete to help others in a way that ultimately increases their own chances of survival and reproduction. What looks like altruism is actually, at a deeper level, competitive self-interest.”

Our Devious Minds

“We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky–they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information]–from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others–the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.” 

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

 

A fear that I have is that as we come to doubt the information around us and the perceptions of our minds, we will begin to doubt institutional structures that help us with the flow of information. We should be continually thinking of ways to strengthen institutions that can help us navigate a complex world. At the moment, one of the things I think we are seeing across the globe is that as we doubt information, we doubt institutions which have been valuable in helping human societies advance. We need to find ways to make institutional knowledge more trustworthy and clear so that we can develop institutions which have incentives to provide the most reasonable, clear, and accurate information possible so that we can overcome the biases and misconceptions of the mind.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.”

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high-minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about the children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described, and this spreads throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to that likely account for a large portion of why we do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.”

 

The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be true sometimes, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our purchase. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these excuses that sometimes are true or that partially describe our decisions to justify actions that signal something other than the stated reason for our action.

 

In the case of buying luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth, which demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. Our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes along in a small political tribe.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we have trouble addressing major externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we make them from. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. In the book, the authors make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives that we would like to keep under the covers. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher, and for us in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

Keep What’s Meaningful

The last few weeks I have been wasting time with thing that are not meaningful. My time and attention have been eaten away by things that don’t add value to my life and leave me feeling slightly guilty.

 

This morning I recognized, when I took advantage of an extra 30 minutes in my schedule, of how important it is to keep valuable things in our lives by cutting out the wasteful things. The easy path through life is filled with distracting, quick, and ultimately meaningless parts and pieces. We stay up too late watching pointless tv. We oversleep and eat low nutrition and thoughtless breakfast foods. We purchase large houses and put up with long and wasteful commutes. We make decisions all along the way that we don’t realize sacrifice our time, attention, and ability to meaningfully contribute to the world.

 

These observations on how society pushes our lives lead me to reflect on our daily decisions. I believe we all need to think critically about what are the most important factors in our lives. From there, we can begin to consider the large overarching decisions that we make to shape our lives. Once those decisions have aligned with our core values, we can start to think about the million small decisions that we make each day. This will bring our lives into alignment with our core values and help us cut out things that do not bring us value. It will help us think about what is meaningful and what decisions will help us  build a meaningful, thoughtful, and fulfilling life. Without this approach we won’t be able to think about how we live and our life choices, and we will fill ourselves with meaningless distractions and wastes of time.

 

Looking back at quotes I have written about, a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be seems particularly fitting with these thoughts. He writes, “Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.” Understanding that why helps us see what we need to do to get to a place where we can have a valuable impact on the world. Each of the daily actions that we can take become more clear when we understand our motivations and what we truly want to work toward. Thinking deeply about purpose and meaning gives us a sense of how to make the most out of the short time we have on this planet.

Non-Verbal Communication & Messages

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how non-verbal communication often happens below the level of our consciousness. However, just because it is something we don’t consciously recognize doesn’t mean that the messages conveyed are meaningless. I wrote yesterday about how non-verbal communication can allow us to communicate some messages slyly, implying things and making our intentions clear without us having to say what we really mean. Today, another quote on non-verbal communication from Simler and Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain expands on the role and meaning of non-verbal communication.

 

“Body language … is mostly not arbitrary. Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying.” We have shared physical reactions to emotional states of being that seem to emphasize and align with the emotional state we are in. Across cultures, the authors explain, while words and manners of verbal communication change, a lot of non-verbal communication ques remain constant. Emotional excitement may be displayed through loud exclamations and lots of arm or body movements. Interest in something may result in us staring at the interesting thing, with our eyes widening, potentially changing our field of view.

 

We do these things and respond to non-verbal messages without necessarily realizing we are doing so. Once we start to look for it, however, we can start to notice similar patterns in body language that convey messages that go along with (or perhaps contradict) the verbal messages that we also convey. We can learn that certain non-verbal cues have specific meanings and we can learn to present ourselves a certain way to help reinforce the language that we are trying to get across.

 

Recently, my wife and I adopted a puppy and started training her. In one of our first lessons, the instructor taught us a little about reading the dog’s body language and non-verbal communication. My wife and I now know to look for hair on the back of her neck standing up when she growls, so we know if she is growing in a playful way, or if she feels threatened. This was invisible to me before it was pointed out, even though on some level I probably could still tell the difference between the dog’s attitude.

 

We humans do the same things in some situations. We may playfully wrestle with a loved one or children, and while we might be making physically dominant gestures, there are aspects of our body language and non-verbal communication that demonstrate that everything is just fun play. We can be taught to recognize these types of non-verbal cues, but most of us probably just pick up on them automatically. I suspect that some of us are better than others at noticing these cues, and that it would be very helpful for others to have some explicit explanation of these cues. Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that communication is not just about the words we use, and that unconscious (often) behavior can be directly related and included in the messages we convey, even if our brains don’t fully realize it. A lot happens beneath the surface, and we should acknowledge this and acknowledge just how much our brains don’t see when things are happening right in front of us.