An Ethical Dilemma

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson consider human ethics in a framework laid out by Peter Singer. Singer suggested that if we saw someone dying right in front of us, we would have a moral obligation (in instances that did not put us in mortal danger ourselves) to try to assist them, even if it came at an high cost to ourselves. A common example is that you are wearing brand new very expensive clothing and see someone dying in a situation where you could save them without risk to yourself, but in a way that would certainly ruin your new clothes. The loss of our expensive clothing is almost certainly not a reason to put off helping the person dying in front of us.

 

The question becomes, are we obligated to help people who are not dying in front of us at the the cost of the brand new clothes that we would sacrifice if the person were dying in front of us? Are we obligated to save a life thousands of miles away in a different country and culture for the price of some goods that we might frivolously buy for ourselves?

 

Simler and Hanson lay out this argument in their book and write, “What Singer has highlighted with this argument is nothing more than simple, everyday human hypocrisy – the gap between our stated ideals (wanting to help those who need it most) and our actual behavior (spending money on ourselves). By doing this, he’s hoping to change his readers’ minds about what’s considered ethical behavior. In other words, he’s trying to moralize.”

 

In their book, the authors use the argument of singer and the fact that many of us do not sacrifice the money we would otherwise spend on meaningless things to save the lives of children across the globe as evidence for the elephant in the brain. We say things and signal things that we don’t follow through with, and we are strategically ignorant of the fact that we ignore these aspects of who we are. The authors don’t attempt to criticize us for this behavior, but instead make an effort to point it out and acknowledge that it is a huge driver of human behavior.

 

“Our goal, in contrast,” Write Simler and Hanson, “is simply to investigate what makes human beings tick. But we still find it useful to document this kind of hypocrisy, if only to call attention to the elephant. In particular, what we’ll see in this chapter is that even when we’re trying to be charitable, we betray some of our uglier, less altruistic motives.” Very often we do not escape our own self-interest completely, even when we are doing charitable things for other people. Our ethics and moral philosophies can be trampled by our self-interest, and with our big brains we are able to justify our selfish behaviors.

Mass Advertising

Have you ever wondered why you see so many advertisements for things you cannot afford? I hadn’t thought about this very much before reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, but if you look around you will see tons of ads for expensive things that many of us won’t end up buying. I won’t buy a Rolex watch, but I can picture billboards and advertisements for them. I know the slogan that both BMW and Mercedes have at the end of their advertisements, but I likely won’t ever buy a either car. Why are companies like BMW and Rolex advertising to people like me who don’t have the money or intention to buy their products? Wouldn’t it be wiser for the companies to advertise to people who actually wanted and could afford to buy the things they sell?

 

“When BMW advertises during popular TV shows or in mass-circulation magazines,” write Simler and Hanson, “only a small fraction of the audience can actually afford a BMW. But the goal is to reinforce for non-buyers the idea that BMW is a luxury brand. To accomplish all this, BMW needs to advertise in media whose audience includes both rich and poor alike, so that the rich can see that the poor are being trained to appreciate BMW as a status symbol.”

 

Sure, we can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the car, the horsepower, the sport performance, and the quality of the interior, but a big part of purchasing a BMW is the status symbol. If the true reason for buying a BMW were the list of things we might give as reasons for purchasing the car, then advertisers would not need to make sure that everyone knew the car was an expensive way to show one’s status. Ads could be targeted to the people who really care about car aesthetics and performance, not to people who are just going to shuttle a bunch of kids back and forth to soccer practice.

 

I try hard to be aware of the pressures I feel when making purchases or considering new purchases. I try to understand that I am pulled to make a purchase to show off my status. I also try hard to understand that owning expensive items, having a large salary, and being economically successful do not necessarily define my value as a human being. Understanding what advertisers are doing when they show ads to mass audiences about things that demonstrate our wealth and should be seen (in the mind of the advertiser) as desirable helps me keep my focus on what matters – being a good person, producing value for human beings, and avoiding negative externalities that arise from my desire to show off. This is why I think it is beneficial to understand the mind and what is happening in our heads when we see a BMW advertisement. By recognizing what impulses the ad is targeting and understanding the human drive for status, we can redirect our money and energy to things that truly matter, and away from hollow status markers.

Effortlessly Cool

“All else being equal, we prefer to think that we’re buying a product because it’s something we want for ourselves, not because we’re trying to manage our image or manipulate the impressions of our friends. We want to be cool, but we’d rather be seen as naturally, effortlessly cool, rather than someone who’s trying too hard.”

 

This quote comes from Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe some of the processes taking place in our brain when we make purchases that we don’t like to acknowledge. We prefer to hide some of these less than flattering motives when we buy something and we create a surface level reason for our purchase that sounds reasonable to ourselves and others. We create stories in our heads and that we share with others about how we have not done anything for ourselves recently, about how we have been saving for a purchase and want to make sure we get our money’s worth, and about how we really deserve this thing because we have been working so hard.

 

A big reason for why we may purchase something, however, is that we want to impress someone else. We want to make others think something specific about who we are, even if that isn’t exactly true. We want to be impressive, we want to be seen as cool, and we want to impress others, but we can’t always do so directly. It is hard to impress other people with direct shows of how awesome we are, and in many ways (in the United States at least) we have norms which frown upon direct bragging or obvious show-off behaviors. Subtle signaling through purchases, through physique, and through charity help us show-off in socially acceptable ways.

 

What is really interesting about the quote above is how much we try to make our signaling appear effortless. With being socially cool and desirable, a big piece is making it appear natural. Trying too hard counteracts the signaling we are doing with our purchases because it violates the norms against making obvious efforts to show off. We don’t impress people when they know we are trying to impress them as well as we impress people when it just happens to be a by product of our natural behavior. To that end, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will impress people and how to do that thing in a way that will appear to others as if it were natural and easy. We want to be cool, but we can’t be seen trying to be cool.

Individual Clothes

Something that is very common to science fiction movies involving future civilizations is a common wardrobe shared by most of the characters. Future cities, alien civilizations, and advanced people in the minds of our science fiction writers seem to give up on a world of distinct fashion in favor of some type of sleek outerwear that has minimal variation from one person to another. Everyone is in the same sleek silver jump suit. Everyone just wears the same indistinguishable plain clothing. The future is not fashionable, its practical and efficient.

 

I find future clothing interesting because it seems to be saying something different than what we say with our clothing choices today. In a movie, the unimportant background characters all wear the same clothes because they are not supposed to be the standout focus of the film (also a set designer and costume manager would go crazy coming up with 500 different costumes for different people). A lot of our future societies are also either utopian or dystopian, and a sense of individuality is either erased by a tyrant or given up by the society in favor of the collective. Clothes become a way to say, “I’m one of us,” rather than a way to say, “I’m me.”

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson talk about the hidden messages that our clothes send to other people. They write, “Today there’s a stigma to wearing uniforms, in part because it suppresses our individuality. But the very concept of individuality is just signaling by another name. The main reason we like wearing unique clothes is to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. In this way, […] the most basic message sent by our clothing choices [is] – I’m my own person in charge of my own outfit.”

 

We choose clothes that say something about us. They signal the groups we belong to, how much we adhere to social norms, and what kind of person we think of ourselves as. We are not just trying to look good, we are trying to give people extra information about ourselves so that they know a little bit about who we are without having to interact with us directly. In movies they tell us who are background characters we can forget about, and in science fiction they tell us that society has congealed together in an efficient and unified manner. Today, however, they tell the world how special and unique we want to be.

The Signaling Motives Behind Purchasing Decisions

Recently I have written about the way we use wealth and money to purchase things that signal something about us. The ideas for my posts have been from The Elephant in the Brain where Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which we intentionally deceive ourselves and others in order to gain something, demonstrate a quality about ourselves, or provide some type of message to others without needing to be overt about our actions. There are lots of things about our identity, our values, and our survival that work much better under the surface rather than explicitly addressed.

 

Our wealth and money can be signals for our identity, personal character traits, and group status, plus they can be used to purchase other things that further signal these things about who we are. What is interesting is how much we are not aware of these signals, and the extent to which we fail to recognize or acknowledge the drive these signaling mechanisms have in our purchasing decisions.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “as consumers, we’re aware of many of these signals. We know how to judge people by their purchases, and we’re mostly aware of the impressions our own purchases make on others. But we’re significantly less aware of the extent to which our purchasing decisions are driven by these signaling motives.” We go out of our way to make certain impressions on other people, to show that we are part of a certain group, that we truly belong in a particular space, and that we are competent enough to know what we are doing. We put a lot of effort into demonstrating something about ourselves, even if we don’t think we are.

 

Sometimes we are expected to make these signals, and sometimes we make them so that we can fit in with a particular group or identity that we want to adopt. Doctors might purchase fancy cars even if they have high levels of student debt and can’t really afford the car. Runners might buy particular sunglasses to look cool at the group runs, and many religious people might spend a lot on fancy religious jewelry to show off wealth and faith at the same time. The things we buy, or don’t buy, reflect something about ourselves, the groups we belong to, and our values. With some purchases we try to be as visible as possible – like buying a fancy thing at a charity auction, and with some purchases we try our hardest to hide the evidence of our transaction – like say paying off a porn actress to stay silent about an affair. The thing we purchase may be an approved way to flaunt our wealth and social value (like a Tesla), but it could also signal a moral deficiency or a selfish behavior. We don’t always acknowledge it directly, but many of our purchasing decisions have these qualities, and it is probably best to be aware of this signaling behaviors when we are making purchases.

Buying Experiences

I’m not big into materialism and I notice a lot of problems in trying to purchase ever greater and more expensive things. I’m one of those people who would probably repeat the trite line of “I’d rather buy an experience than a thing” or “I want to use my money to purchase memories and things that will stick with me rather than things that wear out.” What I need to remind myself, however, is that purchasing experiences over material objects does not remove me from the human drive to use our purchases to show off.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about making experience purchases. Part of why we make these purchases is to enjoy a new experience, see something new, and get away to make new memories as we claim, but part is about something else. “Buying experiences also allows us to demonstrate qualities that we can’t signal as easily with material goods, such as having a sense of adventure or being open to new experiences,” the authors write.

 

Our experience purchases never happen in a vacuum. We come back from Hawaii with a great tan. We post pictures of the waterfall at the top of our hike on social media. We tell our friends and coworkers about the great meals and the amazing show that we went to. Our experiences don’t stay in the place we visited (sorry Vegas!), and in some ways, that is the point. Part of why we go on vacations, sign up for running events, take fishing trips, or visit the big city is so that we can have new stories to tell when we get back. This is part of the appeal and part of the value of our journeys.

 

This makes sense to me when I think about how we evolved. Even for those of our ancestors who were more predisposed to be home bodies taking care of the local tribal and group needs, a journey away could provide new insights and stories for others. Possibly a warning of traveling away, possibly of news of something new that might be on its way, and possibly just stories about something different. These tales and stories could help build group cohesion as a whole, and could help the story teller rise in terms of social status in the group to pass on their genes.

 

In the world today we should remember this. When we take a trip, we should consider our desire for sharing every detail, and we should consider whether we are sharing for others or for our own gain. We might still brag a bit about where we went, but we should do so with a conscious understanding of what we are doing, rather than denying our (potentially) true motives.

Conspicuous Consuption

Conspicuous consumption is probably one of the most damaging aspects of American society. It involves using our purchases to serve as a way to show off a particular aspect of who we are want to be. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “the idea that we use purchases to flaunt our wealth is known as conspicuous consumption. It’s an accusation that we buy things not so much for purely personal enjoyment as for showing off or keeping up with the Joneses.”

 

Throughout the book Hanson and Simler look at human behaviors and consider them alongside the stated reasons, beliefs, and excuses that people have for those behaviors. There are many things in life that we do without acknowledging ulterior motives. We have motivations that lie beneath the surface and drive our thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We do not examine and acknowledge these motivations, but they are real, and they are there.

 

Conspicuous consumption is the use of our wealth and ability to make purchases in a way that is ostensibly about one thing, but very likely are about something else that we would like to keep hidden from others. When we buy a fancy new sports car, we will tell others about incredible new technology, about how hard we have worked and how we deserve to treat ourselves, or about the incredible performance of the car. What we likely won’t tell people is that we felt that we deserved more attention and wanted to show off that could afford a new sports car. What we won’t acknowledge, even to ourselves, is how much our behavior is driven by others and by a desire to fit in, be praised, and make sure everyone is aware of our beliefs about our personal value.

 

Each of those things (showing how much we fit in, telling people how valuable we are, and receiving praise) are aspects of social life that we can’t just go around and obtain directly. Instead, we have to signal those things through behaviors and activities that we can spin as more sociable and more acceptable behaviors. Money and wealth gives us a chance to show off and to signal our competence or connectedness to the outside world. It gives us a way to brag without having to outright brag. We can be more humble in the ways that we show off by being indirect.

 

However conspicuous consumption can drive us to ignore climate change and the externalities of our actions. It can create stress as we strive to make purchases that put us in perilous financial situations – the opposite of what the purchase is supposed to signal. And it is ultimately all about gaining more status at the expense of others who cannot keep up. We spend a lot of time and energy attempting to show off our wealth so that we can be rewarded not by the thing we purchase, but with praise and respect of others that we may not really deserve. We should acknowledge these pressures and chose when we are going  to be conspicuous with our wealth, and when we will exit the signaling contest avoid showing off.

Examples of Hidden Meaning in Communication

Yesterday I wrote about how our speech conveys information in the direct meaning of what we say and also conveys additional information about us as a person. Our messages include the specific thing we said, and also something about how we are the type of person who knows about or cares about the thing we just communicated. This second layer of communication is very important, and is often more important than the information we actually express, even though we likely never acknowledge it.

 

As an example, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write the following in The Elephant in the Brain, “When you’re interviewing someone for a job, for example, you aren’t trying to learn new domain knowledge from the job applicant, but you might discuss a topic in order to gauge the applicant as a potential coworker. You want to know whether the applicant is sharp or dull, plugged-in or out of the loop. You want to know the size and utility of the applicant’s backpack.”

 

This example is really clear and we can see that the things being communicated are less important than the behind the scenes things that the communication tells us about the person. Have they been in situations that demand creativity, were they able to navigate those situations well, and can they now look back and clearly express what they learned from those situations? These questions are hard to ask directly, but the communication from the interviewee will give us answers to these questions whether they are directly asked or not.

 

As an example from my personal life, the other week I drew a river on a coworker’s whiteboard because I learned some really fascinating information about erosion and deposition within rivers from the Don’t Panic Geocast. The information I shared about rivers is not going to help either of us in our jobs or life in any meaningful way, but I found it interesting and wanted to share. What I was really conveying, however, was that I am the type of person who gets excited about science and fun geological processes. I was telling her, “hey, I’m the kind of person who picks up interesting but obscure information from across the world and can remember it.” If I just walked around saying that I would probably annoy everyone (not to say drawing rivers on other peoples whiteboards doesn’t) but at least in this way I can show my interests in the world and share a little bit about myself in a less obnoxious and intrusive manner.

 

We all do things like this at times in our lives. We are not conscious of it, because being conscious of it doesn’t actually help us be much better in conversations and social situations. Our brains continuously monitor, adjust, and respond to social situations, and we are able to send a lot of messages without either ourselves or the people we talk to actively noticing what we are doing during these conversations.

Two Messages

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act to signal something important about ourselves that we cannot outright express. We deceive ourselves to believe that we are not sending these signals, but we recognize them, pick up on their subtle nature, and know how to respond to these cues even if we remain consciously ignorant to them. In the book, the authors focus on how we use these cues in language and communication.

 

The authors write, “Every remark made by a speaker contains two messages for the listener: text and subtext. The text says, ‘Here’s a new piece of information,’ while the subtext says, ‘By the way, I’m the kind of person who knows such things.’ Sometimes the text is more important than the subtext … but frequently, it’s the other way around.”

 

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes the text truly is the important part of our message. Because we occasionally have really important things that people need to know, and because that information outweighs the fact that we are the one who knows it and shared it, we can use that as a screen for us in this game of two messages. We can believe that all our communication is about important important information because there are times where the things we communicate are crucial to know. Hanson and Simler’s idea above only works if sometimes it is true that the text is the important piece and if almost always we can plausibly say that we are just trying to convey useful information as opposed to showing off what we know or what we have learned.

 

No matter what, at the same time our communication says something about us and about what knowledge and information we may have. It can also say something about what we don’t know, which may be part of why we go to great lengths to make it seem like we were not ignorant of something – our language/knowledge might tell people we are not the kind of person who knows something that everyone else knows.

 

Our language also tells people that we are the kind of person who cares about something, or has great attention to detail, is strict and disciplined, or is from a certain part of the country/world. Some of these signals are fairly hidden, while others are more clear and obvious. When we look more closely at the way we signal in our conversation, we can see how often our words are only part of what we are communicating.

Speakers are Eager to Impress

The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”

 

In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.

 

Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.

 

All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.