Signaling Loyalty

Politics is an interesting world. We all have strong opinions about how the world should operate, but in general, most of us don’t have much deep knowledge about any particular issue. We might understand the arguments about charter schools, about abortions, or about taxes, but very few of us have really studied any of these areas in considerable depth. Anyone with a career in a specific industry understands that there is a public perception of the industry and the deeper and more complex inner workings of the actual industry. But when we think about political decisions regarding any given industry and topic, we suddenly adopt easy surface level answers that barely skim the surface of these deep and complex inner dynamics.

 

If we all have strong opinions about politics without having strong knowledge about any of it, then we must ask ourselves if politics is really about policy at all? Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that politics is generally about something other than policy. In The Elephant in the Brain they write, “Our hypothesis is that the political behavior of ordinary, individual citizens is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to our side (whatever side that happens to be in a particular situation), rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes.” 

 

If the main driver of politics was doing good in the world and reaching good outcomes for society, then we would likely be a much more hands-off, technocratic society. Instead, we have elected a president who doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of any major issues, but who does know how to stoke outrage and draw lines in the sand to differentiate each side. We generally look around and figure out which team we belong to based on our identity and self-interest, and separate into our camps with our distinct talking points. We don’t understand issues beyond these talking points, but we understand how they make our side look more virtuous.

 

I believe that people who are deeply religious are drawn toward the Republican Party which currently denies climate change partly because a society that has less emphasis on science is likely to be more favorable toward religious beliefs. The veracity of climate change and the complex science behind it is less important than simply being on a side that praises people for religious beliefs. Similarly, I believe that people with higher education degrees are more likely to align with the Democrat Party because, at the moment, it is a party that encourages scientific and technical thought. It is a party that socially rewards the appearance of critical thinking and praises people who have gone to school. Without needing to actually know anything specific, people with degrees who appear to think in a scientific method framework are elevated in the party where people with religious beliefs are disregarded. Both parties are operating in ways that signal who is valuable and who belongs on a particular side. Issues map onto these signals, but the issues and policies are not the main factors in choosing a side.

Sample Bias and Obliquity – Lessons from the Education Model

I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.

 

Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.

 

These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.

 

“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”

 

Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.

 

The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.

Factionalized

“Whenever and issue becomes factionalized,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “framed as Us against Them, we should expect to find ourselves behaving more like an apparatchik competing to show loyalty to our team.”

 

The human mind is exceptionally good at creating in-group and out-group perspectives. There are Ford Drivers versus Chevy Drivers. Raiders fans versus non-Raiders fans. Runners versus cross-fitters. Country folk versus urbanites. For whatever reason, we have a tendency to look for division across many areas of our lives, even when those areas are completely meaningless and inconsequential. Naturally, we assign good qualities to the groups that we belong to, and we start to assign all kinds of negative qualities and traits to the out-groups to which we don’t belong.

 

There is no meaningful difference between Ford and Chevy trucks, but talk to a guy who just bought a new truck and they will explain all about the positive qualities of their truck and people like them who buy their particular brand of truck. There is no way they could ever buy the other brand of truck and it is not a long jump for them to describe people who do buy other brands to be described as dumb, lazy, or lacking taste.

 

In politics we see this behavior the most clearly. When a president or party leader raises a particular item on the agenda and states that something is very important to them, the party loyalists (the apparatchiks) will instantly congeal to their opinion. The opposing party, meanwhile, will align themselves staunchly against the other party and their opinions. Any middle ground will get gobbled up by our in-grouping and out-grouping. This trickles down to the public and we don’t think deeply about issues, but simply recognize which line we are supposed to adopt to be on the correct team.

 

In the world of politics this can have disastrous consequences. In our personal lives, the stakes are not as high, but the consequences can still be ugly and should be pushed against. There is no reason to be pressured into feeling that you can or cannot eat something simply because people who are not like you also enjoy (or dislike) eating that thing. There is no reason our vehicle purchasing decision needs to be influenced by these meaningless groups that we create. We can take these pressures off our shoulders and try to be more connected with all people, not just with a small group that has something in common with ourselves. If we do better at recognizing these biases and pushing against them, then maybe we can build up to having more constructive relationships and build more cooperation into high stakes environments like politics.

Three Factors That Push In Favor of Religious Belief

In The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, the idea that many of the ways we act and behave have little to do with our stated reason for our actions and behaviors is explored in great detail. The authors’ thesis is that our self-interest dominates many of our decisions. The authors suggest that our beliefs, our social behaviors, and our interactions in the world are reflective of our self-interest, even if we don’t admit it. One area the authors examine through this lens is religious belief.

 

Simler and Hanson identify three factors that tend to push people toward belief, even though the factors have little to do with evidence for or a belief in a deity. They write:

 

“1) People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. 2) It’s therefore in everyone’s interest to convince others that they believe in God and in the dangers of disobedience. 3) Finally, as we saw …, one of the best ways to convince others of one’s belief is to actually believe it. This is how it ends up being in our best interests to believe in a god that we may not have good evidence for.”

 

The argument the authors put forward is that people believe that people of faith will be better people. That they will be less likely to commit crimes, more likely to have high moral standards for themselves, and more likely to be an honest and trustworthy ally. In order to be seen as a person who is trustworthy and honest, it becomes in one’s best interest to display religious faith and to convince other people that our beliefs are sincere and that we truly are an honest, trustworthy, and moral ally. These social factors don’t actually have to be related to religious beliefs, but the beliefs can create a structure that allows us to demonstrate these qualities.

 

These factors then push us toward belief. It is hard to always convince people that you are authentic, but it is not hard to simply adopt a belief, even if there is a shaky foundation for the belief you adopt. This occurs today with political beliefs about specific governmental decisions and interventions. It happens with climate change denial, and with fad diets. We convince ourselves that we are doing something because it is correct, and we can then better defend our decision and better defend our actions which might be signaling something else about ourselves.

Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.

 

In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.

 

The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.

 

In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.

 

There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.

Religion As a Community Social Structure

There are not many things that pull people together quite like religious beliefs. Sports pull us together when our kids are on the same team, when we are all in a stadium, or when two of us are wearing the right hat on an airplane, but those don’t make for strong ties that are lasting and uniting. Religion offers an entire worldview and set of corresponding behaviors that do create lasting ties between people who otherwise wouldn’t have much in common and wouldn’t likely interact for any significant time. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at religion in their book The Elephant in the Brain to understand the ways that religious signaling, behaviors, and beliefs operate in ways that often go unnoticed.

 

They quote a few authors in a short section that stood out to me:
“Religion,” says Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.”
“God,” says Emile Durkheim, “Is society writ large.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to explain what this community and larger social aspect of religion means given that we tend to think of religion more as a private belief system:

 

“In this view, religion isn’t a matter of private beliefs, but rather of shared beliefs and, more importantly, communal practices. These interlocking pieces work together, creating strong social incentives for individuals to act (selfishly in ways that benefit the entire religious community. And the net result is a highly cohesive and cooperative social group. A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.”

 

Religions typically encourage pro-social behaviors that get people thinking more about a cohesive group than about selfish motives. By pursuing these prosocial behaviors, people can gain more status and prestige in society. For selfish reasons then (at least to some extent), people pursue the religious dictates of their society in their own personal lives. As they do this, positive externalities may arise and may create a society that is more cohesive and supportive all around. This might not always happen, but having a shared system of understanding the world, our places in the world, and the stories about who we are and why we exist help to create the social fabric and social capital to further encourage cooperation and social cohesion. In a weird way, our selfish motives encourage religion, even if we don’t acknowledge it and assume that religion is entirely about personal beliefs.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

Personal Medical Decisions?

A couple weeks back my grandma sent me a message on Facebook that was a picture of two very obese individuals eating a giant pizza and drinking soda. A caption on the photo read, “This is why I don’t want to pay for your healthcare.” As a person who is interested in and taken classes about public health and health policy, I actually think about these things all the time. I recognize the importance of making smart health choices, but I also understand that health outcomes can be a result of a complex web of social determinants of health. There are factors that are beyond our control in regard to living healthy, and there are some factors that seem like easy decisions to some people, that are monumental challenges to others. Despite the amount of time I spend thinking about these things, I don’t have a clear answer in my head for when people need a tough love kick in the pants versus compassion, and when a given outcome is generally more the result of poor individual decisions and habits or more the result of uncontrollable social determinants of health. There likely is no clear answer to this question, and I think it is reasonable to say, “I have thought about this a lot and I don’t know.”

 

This leads me to another factor that compounds the complexity of healthcare decisions: What choices, decisions, and behaviors are personal, and which ones should be considered public? If I chose to smoke, is that a personal decision even though there may be public consequences if I die early, have poor health overall, and require more emergency medical care which ultimately drives everyone’s healthcare premiums up? Do I have to exercise every day to stay healthy as a public good and not just as a private good? If I go get an x-ray on the ankle I sprained to make sure it isn’t broken, is that going to take time away from medical professionals who could help someone that really needs it when all I likely need to do is ice it a little bit?

 

In the book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about Steve Jobs and his decision to forgo cancer treatment as recommended by the American Medical Association’s best practices. Jobs is an interesting case because the fortunes of a company that many people love rested on his medical decisions. Beyond just his own health and the considerations of his family, people felt that they had their own money on the line if they owned apple stocks. If Jobs lived and survived his illness, it would be good for Apple, but if he denied standard treatment and died, what did that mean for the public?

 

“The point here,” write Simler and Hanson, “is that whenever we fail to uphold the (perceived) highest standards for medical treatment, we risk becoming the subject of unwanted gossip and even open condemnation. Our seemingly personal medical decisions are, in fact, quite public and even political.”

 

The kind of medicine we pursue and the lifestyle we live are never going to be restricted to just ourselves. We will at the very least be judged by others for our health and medical decisions. Our choices may or may not have major financial implications for other people, but that doesn’t mean that we can make our choices in a vacuum.

 

What is important to remember here is how complex the line is between personal and societal responsibility. Our individual decisions can have bigger impacts than we realize, and it is hard to keep something just within our own bubble. Added to that are questions about liberty and the authority of the state. It is not an easy question to ask if your diet should be controlled by anyone other than yourself, or if you should be forced to exercise and sleep a certain amount. Approach questions about healthcare understanding that these questions don’t have clear answers, and whichever choice we make is going to have strange consequences as a result of these complex inter-dependencies.

A Simple Quid Pro Quo

Have you ever thought about how we treat people who are sick? We have an entire economic system (trillions of dollars in the US) set up around treating people who are sick. When we have family members who are ill we often take time off work, help make sure their pillows are comfortable, and make them hot tea or soup. We will put ourselves at risk of catching whatever illness they have, or if it is not contagious, we will sacrifice large parts of our lives to be there in support. I’m not suggesting that caring for the ill is a bad thing, but it is curious that humans would develop a drive to help those who are sick at great personal risk and cost to oneself.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that helping those who are sick is actually less about helping the sick person, and more about making sure we will have someone to help us if we are in a similar situation in the future. There is a quid pro quo taking place where we make a sacrifice so that others will sacrifice for us if we get sick.

 

The authors write, “in part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned. But providing support is also an advertisment to third parties: See how I help my friends where they’re down? If you’re my friend, I’ll do the same for you. In this way, the conspicuous care shown in our medical behaviors is similar to the conspicuous care shown in charity; by helping people in need, we demonstrate our value as an ally.”

 

We all want people to see us as nice, generous, caring individuals. To make sure people see us that way, we seize upon opportunities to demonstrate those qualities in the real world, even if there is a cost to us. The authors would argue that it is precisely when there is a cost to us that we are most likely to be charitable or to help those who are ill, at least if there is a sufficient audience. It often feels like we are just doing something nice for another person out of the goodness of our heart, but often there is another layer at play that is more self-interested than we would want others to see. We hide that part of ourselves and make an effort to not see that part of ourselves in who we are, or in the people we care about. That part of ourselves is the elephant in the brain which is dictating a lot of our interactions with the world, even though we won’t acknowledge it.

Signaling Work Potential

“In 2001, the Nobel Prize was awarded to economist Michael Spence for a mathematical model of one explanation for these puzzles: signaling. The basic idea is that students go to school not so much to learn useful job skills as to show off their work potential to future employers. In other words, the value of education isn’t just about learning; it’s also about credentialing.”

 

The quote above is from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain when the authors talk about why we go to school and what purpose education is serving for our society and for us as individuals. Education costs have been rising and we continue to encourage everyone to go to college. Several presidential candidates on the Democratic side have even put forward plans for free tuition. The idea at play as college tuition rises, as we push everyone toward college, and as our candidates outline plans for everyone to be able to afford college is the idea that higher education is all about learning useful and valuable knowledge that will help every individual and our entire society become more productive and better functioning. We want smart people with extensive education to drive our society forward, and college is the way to make that happen.

 

However, if much of our education is about signaling, then what will happen if we push everyone to go to college? Some students will learning useful information, important skills, and will develop in ways that they could not if they hadn’t pursued higher education, but will it benefit all students? If much of our higher education is about attaining credentials to stand out and show off, then won’t we simply diminish the status and credentials of those who do go to college? There are arguments to be made for and against free college tuition and it is important to understand what is happening with each to develop a better argument and discussion around higher education.

 

First, we must admit that sometimes college is just about signaling and getting a piece of paper to check a box on a job application. By acknowledging that piece, we can start to move forward and think about what opportunities we want to help provide to people. It seems to me that everyone should have a chance to move forward and pursue the education benefits we applaud, but it also seems reasonable to say that we should not overly subsidize what is often just signaling behavior.

 

For those who simply want the credential and don’t care much for the knowledge opportunities along the way, perhaps a greater development in training and education specific to a technical trade or craft would be a better option. Perhaps a less costly signal that focuses more on doing than learning is a valid alternative to the standard higher education model. With an alternative avenue in place, perhaps we can appropriately decide what level of subsidy should be provided to those who do want to go the traditional college rout. Perhaps existing colleges can also adjust to make their signals stronger, while also encouraging more learning as a side goal.

 

I’m not sure what a perfect path forward looks like, but I know we won’t move in the right direction if we believe that education is only about learning and growth. Some of us will learn a lot and demonstrate clear growth in college, but many of us will simply lose time as we strive for more credentials and attempt to signal to future employers that we are the kind of person they should hire.