Tyler Cowen started his February 28th, 2018 podcast interview with his colleague from George Mason University, Robin Hanson, with the following:
“Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”
Hanson goes on to explain that conversations are not really about imparting useful information and finding out useful things, but that conversation is likely more about showing off and signaling. When you share new information to someone, you are showing them that you are a valuable ally who knows useful things that might one day be helpful. When you share a particular piece of knowledge, you are signaling that you are the kind of person who would know such knowledge.
I think that Hanson’s views toward signaling are correct and deserve more attention and consideration. A lot of what we do has more to do with signaling than about the reason we would give to an observer for what we are doing. Hanson is not alone in recognizing this reality.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, the following about money:
“Except for the very poor, for whom income coincides with survival, the main motivators of money-seeking are not necessarily economic. For the billionaire looking for the extra billion, and indeed for the participant in an experimental economics project looking for the extra dollar, money is a proxy for points on a scale of self-regard and achievement. These rewards and punishments, promises and threats, are all in our head.”
Money is not really about economic well-being (for most of us). Its not really about the things we can purchase or the vacations we can take. Money is really about social status. Having more of it elevates our social status, as does using it for impressive and expensive purposes. There is no objective ranking out there for our social status, but we act as if our social status is tangible and will reveal something important about our lives and who we are. Pursuing money gives us a chance to pursue social status in an oblique way, making it look as though we are doing something for high-minded reasons, when in reality we are trying to climb a social ladder and use money as our measuring stick of success.
Realistically, we are not going to be able to do much of anything about our signaling behaviors, especially if Hanson is correct in estimating that well over 90% of what we do is signaling. However, we can start to acknowledge signaling and chose where and how we send signals about ourselves. We can chose not to rely on money to signal something about who we are and can seek out more healthy avenues for signaling, with more environmentally friendly and socially conscientious signaling externalities taken into consideration.