The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums - Kevin Simler - Robin Hanson - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan - Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums

In the book The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue that our own self-interest drives a huge amount of our behavior. On the surface this doesn’t sound like a huge shock, but if you truly look at how deeply our self-interest is tied to everything we do, you start to see that we like to pretend that we don’t act purely out of our own self-interest. Instead, we lie to ourselves and others and create high minded reasons for our beliefs, behaviors, and actions. But our self-interest is never far behind. It is always there as the elephant in the room (or brain) influencing all that we do even if we constantly try to ignore it.
This is likely what happens when people visit psychics and mediums with the hopes of learning about their future or reconnecting with the spirit of a lost one. Mary Roach describes what is going on with psychics, mediums, and their clients in her book Spook, and I think her explanation is a strong argument for the ideas presented by Hanson and Simler in The Elephant in the Brain. She writes:
“It seems to me that in many cases psychics and mediums prosper not because they’re intentionally fraudulent, but because their subjects are uncritical. The people who visit mediums and psychics are often strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe that what is being said is relevant and meaningful with regard to them or a loved one.”
Both psychics/mediums and their subjects are motivated by self-interests that they don’t want to fully own up to. They both deceive themselves in order to appear to genuinely believe the experience. If you can fool yourself then it becomes much easier to fool others, and that requires that you ignore the elephant (your self-interest) in your brain.
Clients want to believe they are really interacting with the spirit of a lost one and not being fooled or defrauded. Critical thinking and deliberately acknowledging that they are susceptible to being fooled are ignored and forgotten. Instead, the individual’s self-interest acts behind the scenes as they help create the reality they want to inhabit with the help of the psychic or medium.
The psychics and mediums also don’t want to be viewed as fraudsters and quacks. They hide the fact that they have economic and social motivations to appear to have special powers and signal their authenticity. If a client is uncritical, it helps the entire process and allows both parties to ignore their self-interest acting below the surface. Ultimately, as Roach argues, the process is dependent on both practitioners who are willing to believe their subjects are having authentic experiences and on subjects to then believe their psychics and mediums are genuinely communicating with the dead. Without either, and without the self-deception for both, the whole process would fall apart.
More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

“In my experience,” writes Mary Roach in Spook, “the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.”
This quote from Mary Roach is something I have experienced in my own life over and over. I have met many people with very strong views about subjects, and they very often oversimplify an issue and reduce arguments against their position to a straw man. Rather than carefully considering whether their opinions and perspectives are valid, they dismiss arguments against their favored position without real thought. And to be fair, this is something I have even caught myself doing.
I generally seem to be one of those people who can talk about challenging subjects with just about anyone. I think the reason why I am able to talk to people about difficult topics is because I always try to understand how reach the perspective they hold. I also try hard to understand why I hold my own opinions, and I try not to reduce either my own or another person’s opinion to a simple right or wrong morality judgment. I think we come to our opinions through many convoluted paths, and straw-manning an argument does an injustice to the opinions and views of others.
At the same time, I have noticed that those who hold the most oversimplified beliefs do so in a dogmatic manner, as Roach suggested. They may be able to consider facts and go through deeper considerations, but they ultimately fall back on simple dogma, rather than live with the complex cognitive dissonance required to accept that you believe one thing in general, but cannot always rely on that one thing to explain the particulars. Personally, I have found that I can have conversations with these people, but that I feel frustrated when they then turn around and post things on social media that are reductive and ignore the complex perspectives we previously talked through.
Like Roach, I find that those with more detailed and nuanced views, built out of an accumulation of facts, generally are less emotionally invested in a given topic. Perhaps it is a lack of passion for a topic which allowed them to look at facts in such detail, rather than adopting a favored view and immediately dismissing anything that doesn’t align with that view.
Ultimately, I think much of this behavior can be understood by reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain. We are all smart and capable of self-deception in order to more strongly believe the thing we want to believe. Over simplified dogmas simply help us do that better. I think we are often signaling our loyalty to a group or signaling some characteristic that we think is important when we make reductive and dogmatic statements. We recognize what identity we wish to hold and what is in our self-interest, and we act our part, adopt the right beliefs, and signal to others that we are part of the right in-group. In this way, the dogma is a feature and not a bug.
Personally and Politically Disturbed by the Homeless

Personally and Politically Disturbed by the Homeless

On the first page of the preface of The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes about the responses that many Americans had to the rise of homelessness in American cities in the 1970s. He writes, “The spread of homelessness disturbed affluent Americans for both personal and political reasons. At a personal level, the faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. … At a political level, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic or social institutions.”
I think the two books which most accurately describe the way that I understand our political and social worlds are Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Kahneman suggests that our brains are far more susceptible to cognitive errors than we would like to believe. Much of our decision-making isn’t really so much decision-making as it is excuse making, finding ways to give us agency over decisions that were more or less automatic. Additionally, Kahneman shows that we very frequently, and very predictably, make certain cognitive errors that lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the world. Simler and Hansen show that we often deliberately mislead ourselves, choosing to intentionally buy into our minds’ cognitive errors. By deliberately lying to ourselves and choosing to view ourselves and our beliefs through a false objectivity, we can better lie to others, enhancing the way we signal to the world and making ourselves appear more authentic. [Note: some recent evidence has put some findings from Kahneman in doubt, but I think his general argument around cognitive errors still holds.]
Jencks published his book long before Thinking Fast and Slow and The Elephant in the Brain were published, but I think his observation hints at the findings that Kahneman, Simler, and Hanson would all write about in the coming decades. People wanted to hold onto beliefs they possibly knew or suspected to be false. They were disturbed by a reality that did not match the imagined reality in which they wanted to believe. They embraced cognitive errors and adopted beliefs and conclusions based on those cognitive errors. They deceived themselves about reality to better appear to believe the myths they embraced, and in the end they developed a political system where they could signal their virtue by strongly adhering to the initial cognitive errors that sparked the whole process.
Jencks’ quote shows why homelessness is such a tough issue for many of us to face. When we see large number of people failing and ending up homeless it suggests that there is something more than individual shortcomings at work. It suggests that somewhere within society and our social structures are points of failure. It suggests that our institutions, from which we may benefit as individuals, are not serving everyone. This goes against our beliefs which reinforce our self-interest, and is hard to accept. It is much easier to simply fall back on cognitive illusions and errors and to blame those who have failed. We truly believe that homelessness is the problem of individuals because we are deceiving ourselves, and because it serves our self-interest to do so. When we see homeless, we see a reality we want to ignore and pretend does not exist because we fear it and we fear that we may be responsible for it in some way. We fear that homelessness will necessitate a change in the social structures and institutions that have helped us get to where we are and that changes may make things harder for us or somehow diminishing our social status. This is why we are so disturbed by homeless, why we prefer not to think about it, and why we develop policies based on the assumption that people who end up homeless are deeply flawed individuals and are responsible for their own situation. It is also likely why we have not done enough to help the homeless, why it is becoming a bigger issue in American cities, and why we have been so bad at addressing the real causes of homelessness in America. There is definitely some truth to the argument that homelessness is the result of flawed individuals, which is why it is such a strong argument, but we should accept that there are some flawed causal thoughts at play and that it is often in our self-interest to dismiss the homeless as individual failures.
Who Wants Market Regulation?

Who Wants Market Regulation?

“Those who profit from the current situation – and those indifferent to it – will say that the housing market should be left alone to regulate itself. They don’t really mean that,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted.  In the world that Desmond investigated, the world of low-income housing, the ones who don’t think any government action needs to be taken to regulate or stabilize the market are the landlords and people able to make money from slum housing. The people exploiting market failures and extracting rents say they don’t want any changes in housing policy because they favor a free market, but what Desmond’s quote hints at is that they don’t really exist within a free-market, and they currently profit from existing government action (not just inaction) on housing policy.
The quote from Desmond reminds me of senior citizens who protest changes to Medicare with signs that say “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” seemingly unaware that Medicare is a government run health program. The line between government and markets is not always clear to people, and what people actually want in terms of government market regulation doesn’t always line up with people’s stated political beliefs or stated beliefs about government intervention. We can have high minded opinions about the proper role of government relative to markets, and we sound better and more impressive when we do, but the bottom line is that we are all likely driven more by our own self-interest than our high minded opinions of governments and markets.
I am currently listening to Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography on audiobook. I am struck by how our nation’s founding fathers quickly broke down into self-interested policy quarrels that were couched in high minded political rhetoric, but seemed to perfectly back the self-interest of the given founding father. Jefferson in particular seemed to be a master of this kind of deception, arguing that America should have a minimal government and reflect a populist standpoint. However, Jefferson owned slaves and had a vast agrarian plantation and his policies seemed to clearly favor his own lifestyle. His actions can be well understood when viewed through the lens of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who suggest that most of our behavior is signaling and that we generally (and deceptively) act on self-interest more than we would ever admit.
All of this is to suggest that most people don’t really have any independent and objective views of government regulations of markets. Desmond’s quote about housing markets shows that people are driven by self-interest, that they discount regulations that favor their financial interests, and that they misrepresent government policies that make them better off. When our own self-interest, our own bottom line, and our social status are on the line, we are willing to compromise our high minded positions to adopt the view that is expedient to our own interests. This was true of Jefferson and Hamilton in the first Presidential Administration after the adoption of the Constitution, and it is true today in housing, Medicare, and other government and market areas. Landlords, real-estate agents, and others who currently profit in the housing market are in favor of government tax breaks on mortgage interest, of housing vouchers, and other policies that help ensure people can afford high rents. They view the market as being free without fully acknowledging these interventions and how they benefit from them.
Self-Interest & A Banking Moral Hazard

Self-Interest & A Banking Moral Hazard

I have not really read into or studied the financial crisis of 2008, but I remember how angry and furious so many people were at the time. There was an incredible amount of anger at big banks, especially when executives at big banks began to receive massive bonuses while many people in the country lost their homes and had trouble rebounding from the worst parts of the recession. The anger at banks spilled into the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is still a protest that I only have a hazy understanding of.
While I don’t understand the financial crisis that well, I do believe that I better understand self-interest, thanks to my own personal experience and constantly thinking about Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain. The argument from Hanson and Simler is that most of us don’t actually have really strong beliefs about most aspects of the world. For most topics, the beliefs we have are usually subservient to our own self-interest, to the things we want that would give us more money, more prestige, and more social status. When you apply this filter retroactively to the financial crisis of 2008, some of the arguments shift, and I feel that I am able to better understand some of what took place in terms of rhetoric coming out of the crisis.
In Risk Savvy, published in 2014, Gerd Gigerenzer wrote about the big banks. He wrote about the way that bankers argued for limited regulation and intervention from states, suggesting that a fee market was necessary for a successful banking sector that could fund innovation and fuel the economy. However, banks realized that in the event of a major banking crisis, all banks would be in trouble, and dramatic government action would be needed to save the biggest banks and prevent a catastrophic collapse. “Profits are pocketed by executives, and losses are compensated by taxpayers. That is not exactly a free market – it’s a moral hazard,” writes Gigerenzer.
Banks, like the individuals who work for and comprise them, are self-interested. They don’t want to be regulated and have too many authorities limiting their business enterprises. At the same time, they don’t want to be held responsible for their actions. Banks took on increasingly risky and unsound financial loans, recognizing that if everyone was engaged in the same harmful lending practice, that it wouldn’t just be a single bank that went bust, but all of them. They argued for a free market before the crash, because a free market with limited intervention was in their self-interest, not because they had high minded ideological beliefs. After the crash, when all banks risked failure, the largest banks pleaded for bail outs, arguing that they were necessary to prevent further economic disaster. Counter to their free-market arguments of before, the banks favored bail-outs that were clearly in their self-interest during the crisis. Their high minded ideology of a free market was out the window.
Gigerenzer’s quote was meant to focus more on the moral hazard dimension of bailing out banks that take on too many risky loans, but for me, someone who just doesn’t fully understand banking the way I do healthcare or other political science topics, what is more obvious in his quote is the role of self-interest, and how we try to frame our arguments to hide the ways we act on little more than self-interest. A moral hazard, where we benefit by pushing risk onto others is just one example of how individual self-interest can be negative when multiplied across society. Tragedy of the commons, bank runs, and social signaling are all other examples where our self-interest can be problematic when layered up to larger societal levels.
Do People Make the Best Choices?

Do People Make the Best Choices?

My wife works with families with children with disabilities and for several years I worked in the healthcare space. A common idea between our two worlds was that the people being assisted are the experts on their own lives, and they know what is best for them. Parents are the experts for their children and patients are the experts in their health. Even if parents to don’t know all the intervention strategies to help a child with disabilities, and even if patients don’t have an MD from Stanford, they are still the expert in their own lives and what they and their families need.

 

But is this really true? In recent years there has been a bit of a customer service pushback in the world of business, more of a recognition that the customer isn’t always right. Additionally, research from the field of cognitive psychology, like much of the research from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow that I wrote about, demonstrates that people can have huge blind spots in their own lives. People cannot always think rationally, in part because their brains are limited in their capacity to handle lots of information and because their brains can be tempted to take easy shortcuts in decision-making that don’t always take into account the true nature of reality. Add to Kahneman’s research the ideas put forth by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain, where the authors argue that our minds intentionally hide information from ourselves for political and personal advantage, and we can see that individual’s can’t be trusted to always make the best decisions.

 

So while no one else may know a child as well as the child’s parents, and while no one knows your body and health as well as you do, your status as the expert of who you are doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the best position to always make choices and decisions that are in your own best interest. Biases, cognitive errors, and simple self-deception can lead you astray.

 

If you accept that you as an individual, and everyone else individually, cannot be trusted to always make the best choices, then it is reasonable to think that someone else can step in to help improve your decision-making in certain predictable instances where cognitive errors and biases can be anticipated. This is a key idea in the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. In defending their ideas for libertarian paternalism, the authors write, “The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better than the choices that would be made by someone else. We claim that this assumption is false – indeed, obviously false.”

 

In many ways, our country prefers to operate with markets shaping the main decisions and factors of our lives. We like to believe that we make the best choices for our lives, and that aggregating our choices into markets will allow us to minimize the costs of individual errors. The idea is that we will collectively make the right choices, driving society in the right direction and revealing the best option and decision for each individual without deliberate tinkering in the process. However, we have seen that markets don’t encourage us to save as much as we should and markets can be susceptible to the same cognitive errors and biases that we as individuals all share.  Markets, in other words, can be wrong just like us as individuals.

 

Libertarian paternalism helps overcome the errors of markets by providing nudges to help people make better decisions. Setting up systems and structures that make saving for retirement easier helps correct a market failure. Outsourcing investment strategies, rather than each of us individually making stock trades, helps ensure that shared biases and panics don’t overwhelm the entire stock exchange. The reality is that we as individuals are not rational, but we can develop systems and structures that provide us with nudges to help us act more rationally, overcoming the reality that we don’t always make the choices that are in our best interest.
Should We Assume Rationality?

Should We Assume Rationality?

The world is a complex place and people have to make a lot of decisions within that complexity. Whether we are deliberate about it or not, we create and manage systems and structures for navigating the complexity and framing the decisions we make. However, each of us operate from different perspectives. We make decisions that seem reasonable and rational from our individual point of view, but from the outside may seem irrational. The question is, should we assume rationality in ourselves and others? Should we think that we and other people are behaving irrationally when our choices seem to go against our own interests or should we assume that people have a good reason to do what they do?

 

This is a current debate and challenge in the world of economics and has been a long standing and historical debate in the world of politics. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman seems to take the stance that people are acting rationally, at least from their own point of view. He writes, “when we observe people acting in ways that seem odd, we should first examine the possibility that they have a good reason to do what they do.”

 

Rational decision-making involves understanding a lot of risk. It involves processing lots of data points, having full knowledge of our choices and the potential outcomes we might face, as well as thinking through the short and long-term consequences of our actions. Kahneman might argue, it would seem after reading his book, that truly rational thinking is beyond what our brains are ordinarily capable of managing. But to him, this doesn’t mean that people cannot still make rational choices and do what is in their best interests. When we see behaviors that seem odd, it is possible that the choices other people have made are still rational, but just require a different perspective.

 

The way people get to rationality, Thinking Fast and Slow suggests, is through heuristics that create shortcuts to decision-making and eliminate data that is more or less just noise. Markets can be thought of as heuristics in this way, allowing people to aggregate decisions and make choices with an invisible hand directing them toward rationality. So when we see people who seem to be acting obviously irrationally or opposed to their self-interest, we should ask whether they are making choices within an entirely different marketplace. What seems like odd behavior from the outside might be savvy signaling to a group we are not part of, might be a short term indulgence that will stand out to the remembering self in the long run, and might make sense if we can change the perspective through which we judge another person.

 

Kahneman shows that we can predict biases and patterns of thought in ourselves and others, but still, we don’t know exactly what heuristics and thinking structures are involved in other people’s decision-making. A charitable way to look at people is to assume their decisions are rational from where they stand and in line with the goals they hold, even if the choices they make do not appear to be rational to us from the outside.

 

Personally, I am on the side that doubts human rationality. While it is useful, empathetic, and humanizing to assume rationality, I think it can be a mistake, especially if we go too far in accepting the perspective of others as justification for their acts. I think that there are simply too many variables and too much information for us to truly make rational decisions or to fully understand the choices of others. My thinking is influenced by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who argue in The Elephant in the Brain, that we act on pure self-interest to a greater extent than we would ever admit, and we hide our self-interested behaviors and decisions from everyone, including ourselves.

 

At the same time, I do believe that we can set up systems, structures, and institutions that can help us make more rational decisions. Sunstein and Thaler, in Nudge, clearly show that markets can work and that people can be rational, but often need proper incentives and easy choice structures that encourage to encourage better choices. Gigerenzer in Risk Savvy ends up at a similar place, showing that we can get ahead of the brain’s heuristics and biases to produce rational thought. Creating the right frames, offering the right visual aids, and helping the brain focus on the relevant information can lead to rational thought, but nevertheless, as Kahneman shows, our thinking can still be hijacked and derailed, leading to choices that feel rational from the inside, but appear to violate what would be in our best interest when our decisions are stacked and combined over time. Ultimately, the greatest power in assuming rationality in others is that it helps us understand multiple perspectives, and might help us understand what nudges might help people change their behaviors and decisions to be more rational.
Instagram Vacations - Joe Abittan

Instagram Vacations

An important goal of our vacations these days is to take pictures of the unique, interesting, and memorable experiences of our trip. We will go out of our way to get the perfect picture, whether it is with a celebrity, atop a waterfall, or with a plate of food at a busy restaurant where we had to wait an hour for a table. The actual experience of getting to the point where we can take our famed picture may require a long wait in a cold line, a difficult hike up a steep mountain, or a boring car ride for miles to get to a random yet delicious dinner in the middle of no where. We put ourselves through unpleasant experiences while on vacation because the remembering self wants a story to tell about the trip we took.

 

Getting back to the office, returning to school, or catching up with family after our trip is where the remembering self will be in action. Telling our friends and family that we went to the same beach as last year, sat on the shore, read, and didn’t do anything novel or exciting will make the whole vacation feel less meaningful. Perhaps we really just need a boring and relaxing break, but the remembering self doesn’t want us to have a forgettable experience.

 

So instead of the boring and uninspiring vacation where we caught up on sleep and enjoyed lounging around eating simple food, we set out for the perfect Instagram vacation. We relentlessly photograph all the interesting things we do, the famous people we can pose next to for 2 seconds, and the tasty food we eat. We give up a little of the present moment experience in order to capture a picture that we likely won’t spend much time looking at in the future. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored, but as a future memory to be designed.”

 

Instead of taking vacations to get away, relax, and relieve stress, we plan vacations to give us the best possible memories. “In many cases,” Kahneman writes, “we evaluate touristic vacations by the story and the memories that we expect to store.” In his book Kahneman shares research to suggest that students misremember how enjoyable a vacation was when it didn’t have unique and memorable experiences. They become less likely to say they would repeat the trip if it was enjoyable but not unique.

 

This ties in with ideas from Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brian. Hanson would argue that vacations are not about relaxing and taking time away from work or school. He would go further than Kahneman and say that vacations are not about memories but are instead about showing off our wealth, our connections, and how interesting we are by traveling to unique places. We pick memorable vacations because the remembering self wants to craft an interesting story about who we are and the trips we take. We want to signal something to the people around us. We want to impress them, and a boring vacation at the same beach as last year just won’t cut it, even if we would enjoy it more in the moment.
A Lack of Internal Consistency

A Lack of Internal Consistency

Something I have been trying to keep in mind lately is that our internal beliefs are not as consistent as we might imagine. This is important right now because our recent presidential election has highlighted the divide between many Americans. In most of the circles I am a part of, people cannot imagine how anyone could vote for Donald Trump. Since they see President Trump as contemptible, it is hard for them to separate his negative qualities from the people who may vote for him. All negative aspects of Trump and of the ideas that people see him as representing are heaped onto his voters. The problem however, is that none of us have as much internal consistency between our thoughts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs for any of us to justify characterizing as much as half the country as bigoted, uncaring, selfish, or really any other adjective (except maybe self-interested).

 

I have written a lot recently about the narratives we tell ourselves. It is problematic that the more simplistic a narrative, the more believable and accurate it feels to us. The world is incredibly complicated, and a simplistic story that seems to make sense of it all is almost certainly wrong. Given this, it is worth looking at our ideas and views and trying to identify areas where we have inconsistencies in our thoughts. This helps us tease apart our narratives and recognize where simplistic thinking is leading us to unfound conclusions.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows us how this inconsistency between our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors can arise, using moral ambiguity as an example. He writes, “the beliefs that you endorse when you reflect about morality do not necessarily govern your emotional reactions, and the moral intuitions that come to your mind in different situations are not internally consistent.”

 

It is easy to adopt a moral position against some immoral behavior or attitude, but when we find ourselves in a situation where we are violating that moral position, we find ways to explain our internal inconsistency without directly violating our initial moral stance. We rationalize why our moral beliefs don’t apply to us in a given situation, and we create a story in our minds where there is no inconsistency at all.

 

Once we know that we do this with our own beliefs toward moral behavior, we should recognize that we do this with every area of life. It is completely possible for us to think entirely contradictory things, but to explain away those contradictions in ways that make sense to us, even if it leaves us with incoherent beliefs. And if we do this ourselves, then we should recognize that other people do this as well. So when we see people voting for a candidate and can’t imagine how they could vote for such a candidate, we should assume that they are making internally inconsistent justifications for voting for that candidate. They are creating a narrative in their head where they are making the best possible decision. They may have truly detestable thoughts and opinions, but we should remember that in their minds they are justified and making rational choices.

 

Rather than simply hating people and heaping every negative quality we can onto them. We should pause and ask what factors might be leading them to justify contemptible behavior. We should look for internal inconsistencies and try to help people recognize these areas and move forward more comprehensively. We should see in the negativity in others something we have the same capacity for, and we should try to find more constructive ways to engage with them and help them shift the narrative that justifies their inconsistent thinking.
Money Isn't About Economic Security (For Most of Us)

Money Isn’t About Economic Security (For Most of Us)

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.