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.

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.

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.

A Final Thought on Charity

One of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s closing thoughts in their chapter about charity in The Elephant in the Brain reads, “The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.”

 

We human beings are not that great at being altruistic. We are social creatures, and we know that what we do is always being judged by our social tribe in a complex context. It is not just about what we do, but who we are, what kind of people we want to associate with, how we choose to use our time and resources, and what we try to do in the world. Charity, and any altruistic behavior we engage in, fits into this larger narrative about the person we are or try to be.

 

We cannot separate our charitable behavior from our individual self-interest or from the larger context of our live. As a result, charity is something that we use as a signaling mechanism. It is often about helping others, but it is just as often about telling people something about ourselves. This is where Simler and Hanson’s quote comes from.

 

We can use our charity to primarily do good in the world, or we can get the benefits of doing good while primarily showing people how generous we are. We can use our money and extra time to do something meaningful for others that also benefits us with social rewards and accolades, however, the personal benefit from charitable behaviors can be so great that it can take over and become the driving force behind our decisions.

 

This certainly doesn’t happen for everyone and doesn’t apply in every situation, but for a bulk of our charitable behaviors it is a factor at play. It is important to recognize so that we understand what is pushing us to make our donations, and to reshape those pressures so that we use our charitability in the best way to really make the world a better place. We should also acknowledge it so that we can encourage others to do something generous and to help others receive a positive social reward, but only if their charity is also the most effective that it can be.

Generous Leadership

We tend to select leaders who see the world in a positive sum. We like leaders who can look ahead and project a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. We want leaders with empowering visions of the future and shared prosperity for all. We don’t want greedy leaders who are cunning, ruthless, and don’t care to share their bounty with the rest of us.

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson tie ideas of generosity and charity to leadership. Being charitable, giving away of lot of money, and investing a lot of time into something, shows that a person is willing to put others first, is willing to sacrifice something of their own for the good of society, and genuinely cares about other people and not just themselves. The authors write,

“This helps explain why generosity is so important for those who aspire to leadership. No one want leaders who play zero-sum, competitive games with the rest of society. If their wins are our losses, why should we support them? Instead we want leaders with a pro-social orientation, people who will look out for us because we’re all in it together.” 

Leadership is challenging because people don’t want to follow someone who is acting in their own self-interest. For all of us, it is a challenge to get beyond our own desires and to think about what is needed beyond our immediate concerns. To be a leader requires thinking beyond ourselves and having other people in mind when we decide what we are going to do, how we will use our resources, and generally how we will orientate our lives. We can’t be a leader if we are setting out to just be more than or better than others. People will see through us and our leadership will never take off.

Five Factors To Consider Regarding Our Donation Behavior

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin simler and Robin Hanson ask just how much of our behavior is influenced by our self-interest. As an explanation for why we do what we do, simply saying that we did something because we gained some material good, gained more social status, or received some type of pleasurable outcome is generally accepted, but ignored. It is clear that we have self-interest in doing things that we benefit from, but in many ways, we like to ignore self-interest and we prefer to explain our behaviors with more complex rationalizations for why we do what we do. This motivated reasoning, however, creates models that account for many factors without acknowledging the main factor that we would all rather ignore, the elephant in the room (brain), our self-interest.

 

Simler and Hanson investigate charitable donations in the framework of self-interest and consider the warm glow feeling that we get when we make charitable donations, help the person on the street, and generally do good things for others. They look beyond simply “we do things because it makes us feel good” and ask questions to get to a deeper level understanding of human behavior:

 

“The much more interesting and important question is why it feels good when we donate to charity. Digging beneath the shallow psychological motive (pursuing happiness), what deeper incentives are we responding to?

 

To figure this out, we’re going to examine five factors that influence our charitable behavior:
  1. Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched.
  2. Peer pressure. Our giving responds strongly to social influences.
  3. Proximity. We prefer to help people locally rather than globally.
  4. Relatability. We give more when the people we help are identifiable (via faces and/or stories) and give less in response to numbers and facts.
  5. Mating Motive. We’re more generous when primed with a mating motive.
This list is far from comprehensive, but taken together, these factors help explain why we donate so inefficiently, and also why we feel that warm glow when we donate.”

 

I have been writing a lot recently about charitable giving. Part of the reason why is because I see great potential in the resources at the disposal of the average American. We have a lot of wealth relative to the rest of the world, a lot of time relative to previous generations, and a lot of information available to us. However, rather than using our wealth, our time, and the information available to us to maximize our lives, make the world a better place, and solve pressing problems, most people waste their resources. I have continually been thinking about what I consider The Stupid Economy where we feel pressured to buy things we don’t really want to keep up with and impress people we don’t really care much about, and use our resources in pointless and meaningless ways.

 

Our world today has incredibly bright people working at meaningless jobs. We use a lot of our human potential, our creative energy and brain power, and our money to get people to drink sugary water. We invest massive amounts of attention in celebrity news and we celebrate technological inventions like iPhones without applying our hunger for technological improvement to other problems that could potentially save more lives or do more to protect the planet from human caused problems – like trash in our oceans.

 

I want to encourage society to move in a direction that is more considerate and careful with our resource use. I want to be part of something that builds toward a society that has a smart economy, where instead of complaining about the diminishing purchasing power of our society while simultaneously buying $100 jeans we celebrate the resources we have and put them toward real use to create sustainable development. If we are going to set out to do good in the world, we have to understand what Simler and Hanson describe in the quote above. We have to understand how our rationality is derailed, and we need to understand why it is important to be truly effective when we try to do good with what we have.

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.

The Price of Friendship

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Price of Friendship

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

 

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

 

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

 

The authors suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and (hopefully) equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same status level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along. We don’t have to hate this fact about ourselves, but we should acknowledge it and do things that have more positive benefits beyond ourselves since we have no choice but to play these status games.

Competitive Altruism

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

 

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

 

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

 

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