You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Robin Hanson discusses signaling and self deception in the latest of Professor Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler:

TYLER COWEN: Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, we have my colleague Robin Hanson. With Robin, we go meta. 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?

ROBIN HANSON: As you know, in my new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we have a whole chapter on conversation, which I expect you have perused.

The claim we make in there is that, although we like to talk about conversation as if it was about imparting information and finding out useful things, more plausibly it’s about showing off your backpack of tools and skills in context.

COWEN: So what am I trying to signal with the first question in the podcast?

HANSON: [laughs] You are showing your versatility here; you are showing lots of things. You’re showing how well you know me, and that this is the sort of question I like and can engage. You’re showing the audience that you have an unusual perspective on things.

As usual, apparently, people like your conversations because you have some magic sauce, some special way that you can show that you get to people in a way that other people can’t.

COWEN: In your wonderful new book, The Elephant in the Brain, you outline a theory of human behavior where signaling has a great deal of explanatory power. If you had to, in as crude or blunt terms as possible, how much of human behavior ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signaling? What’s your short, quick, and dirty answer?

HANSON: In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.


HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain‘s main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes — they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

In a world where, say, we’re all showing what strong, virile men we are by fighting battles every day, physical battles, we may each enjoy that until the day we die at 25. [laughs] But from a larger social point of view, there’s a huge loss.

The focus here is on the coordination failure, on the equilibrium being inefficient because we have these huge negative externalities. It’s the negative externalities that are the problem and the fault with the signaling, not so much the fact that you like to show off. You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?


  1. Ross says:

    Two observations:

    One, this would appear to be powder for shots fired in a credentialism war. On the pro side.

    Two, I like his take on potentially leaving elephants alone but scourging the analysts and social scientists.

  2. Wan Wei Lin says:

    The purpose of all communication is to get the recipient to respond in a manner we desire. Even saying “Hello” has the minimal purpose of directing the recipient’s attention toward us if even for a moment.

  3. Ross says:

    Wan Wei Lin, I cannot disagree, but I would modify the leading definite article to an indefinite article for broader applicability.

Leave a Reply