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Robin Hanson on Signaling and Self-Deception (Ep. 35 — Live at Mason Econ)

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Mercatus Center
Feb 28, 2018 · 54 min read
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I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

COWEN: Let’s say we’ve bought into this vision where so much of the world is about signaling. Let’s think about what our actual practical options are. One would be that we tax signaling and subsidize nonsignaling behavior . . .

It’s less about the scope of the audience and more about how well informed they are. I’d say our main problem is our audiences are too ignorant. We’re impressing people who can be impressed by things that are stupid.

HANSON: If they weren’t so gullible, we would try harder to impress them with more difficult things that made more difference. For example, in medicine, we’re trying to show off that we care about other people by pushing them to get medicine and buying medicine for them.

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.

On what offends Robin deep down

COWEN: A reader writes in and says, “Ask Robin, is he actually a moralist after all, and if so, what’s the moral value he’s defending?”

On coarse and fine social signals

COWEN: In general, you personally, do you prefer to be in settings where the message space is quite finely grained, and you can send all kinds of subtle hints? Or do you prefer it when there are only coarse signals, where you can state outright what it is you have in mind? “Let’s go to the Afghan restaurant,” rather than hinting, “Hmm, kebab. I sure love kebab.”

But I think [being a nerd] has given me some advantage in being a social scientist, in that when you’re really socially skilled and you move about in the social world, you just intuitively do all the right things, and you don’t think explicitly about it. You don’t really notice that your theories that you might write on the chalkboard about social science don’t actually fit your behavior or the people around you. You can just not notice that conflict.

But I think that has given me some advantage in being a social scientist, in that when you’re really socially skilled and you move about in the social world, you just intuitively do all the right things, and you don’t think explicitly about it. You don’t really notice that your theories that you might write on the chalkboard about social science don’t actually fit your behavior or the people around you. You can just not notice that conflict.

On personality psychology

COWEN: Let me try to slot some of your results into what is sometimes called personality psychology. Most people are quite willing to report that they think they are morally superior to others. In your framework, what other variable about people best predicts who’s the most willing to report this?

On healthcare coverage

COWEN: How much health insurance should a person buy?

On social memes and cues

COWEN: Will the onset of social memes and cues mean that we will evolve to be stupider over longer periods of time? You won’t need whatever Darwinian programming you might have and will tend to lose it, or not?

Humans aren’t what they pretend to be. But what they actually are is spectacular.

COWEN: A reader writes in to me a question, and I quote, “What about the lyric voice, the aesthetics of narration, not grounded in logical sequence but allusion, circularity, unexpected connection? Where does poetry, which doesn’t predict anything, fit into the Hansonian world?”

On The Age of Em

COWEN: In your earlier book, The Age of Em, people upload their brains into computers and then make many copies of themselves. Is this your solution to Fermi’s paradox, namely, where are all the aliens? Have they all done this?

My answer is that I don’t know. That should be an acceptable answer to a question after thinking about it for a long time, as there are some things you don’t know the answer to.

HANSON: My answer there is, I can predict with confidence that out of 7 billion people, some people will identify enough with these uploads in order to create them, and so that the Age of Em would happen.

On identical copies of ourselves

COWEN: You toy with believing in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, so there are nearly identical copies of Robin Hanson out there in most of these theories.

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On things under- and overrated

COWEN: In all of these conversations, or as they’re sometimes called, reeducation camps, there’s a segment in the middle, overrated versus underrated.

On Robin the doer

COWEN: Let me ask a few questions about Robin Hanson, the doer, a significant aspect of Robin’s work and thought.

The more you know, the more you can learn. The more you know about many different fields, the more intersections you could make, the more easier it is to read each new textbook, the easier it is to understand each new thing they’re presenting. And so there is a scale and scope economy of knowing more over life.

COWEN: But they won’t be view quakes.

On improving rational thinking

COWEN: For intelligent human beings, collectively, what would be the best way for us to improve rational thinking?

Q&A

COWEN: We now do have time for questions, so I will call on you. We’ll also bring the microphone over. Anyone, please, with a question. Yes, in the first row, sir.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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