Robin Hanson on Signaling and Self-Deception (Ep. 35 — Live at Mason Econ)
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / RSS
If intros aren’t about introductions, then what’s this here for? Is not including one a countersignal? Either way, you’ll enjoy this conversation — and that says a lot about you.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
This episode was recorded live at Mason for econ grad students. If you’re interested in learning economics with great professors like Robin and Tyler, check out these fellowships.
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.
COWEN: The Minneapolis Institute of Art will be spending $750,000 to measure whether looking at art boosts empathy. What’s your prediction?
HANSON: [laughs] They probably found the right people to give them the answer they wanted, which is yes.
COWEN: What are they signaling?
HANSON: People like art for relatively mundane reasons, but we like to think we like it for grand reasons. I’ve actually had friends of mine from a while ago who are musicians saying we should subsidize music because we’ll have more world peace. The world will have less war and more peace if we subsidize music.
I suppose other people probably say that about art. It’s just one of those feel-good sort of things. Art is a thing you’re supposed to feel good about, and that’s how it’s supposed to produce all the good things. It probably produces health and empathy and long life and faithfulness to your spouse.
COWEN: If one goes to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as I’ve been, you’ll notice there are a fair number of elderly people there, as is also the case at the opera.
As people get older, why is it that biologically they’ve evolved to keep on signaling? There are some signals they send much more of—high-culture signals. A lot of learning classes are done primarily by the elderly. What determines the cross-section here?
HANSON: We exist at older ages for some reason.
HANSON: Biology could have just killed us off at a younger age. Presumably that it’s keeping around us at all, there must be some reason we’re kept around. We have some useful purposes.
In order to serve those purposes, we need allies. We need associates. We need people to trust us and relate to us and deal with us. So signaling is an instrumental way to get all those other resources you need to do most anything.
COWEN: But isn’t there a disconnect here between how we’ve evolved and how technology has changed our society?
We didn’t evolve for a world where, say, 74-year-olds would visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Could it not be that a lot of human behavior, it’s a kind of accidental interaction of very broad features of human character that evolved for very general purposes.
But the actual, particular, detailed instantiations of what happens in the US of A are, in a sense, not really the result of signaling in any direct way at the margin.
HANSON: Generically, evolution created a set of behavioral responses where we look at some sort of cues in the environment, and we respond to those cues in different ways. Obviously, our evolved environment did not have the modern environment to detail specific cues. There is no evolved cue for the Minneapolis Museum of Art. [laughs]
The question is, what cues are we using? What are we looking at in the environment that we are using as cues to make this sort of behavior? I actually think evolution did a pretty decent job of noticing basic functional things in the environment. Is there a potential mate? Is this expensive? Is this cheap? Is this difficult to do?
We’re using those sorts of cues and mapping onto our evolved instincts in that way. I think art is roughly impressive things that are hard to do and that don’t seem to have much other function or purpose. Our evolutionary cues for that are pretty good.
COWEN: If you had to name a few of the human activities that have the least amount to do with signaling, but nonetheless are voluntary, what would they be?
HANSON: I’d pick very simple things like scratching your butt.
HANSON: Something that is not at all impressive or appeal to people around you . . .
HANSON: . . . but you nevertheless do from time to time because you have some other need. I think the degree to which nobody would find it impressive or appealing to see you do it.
Now, there are some things we do that bother some people that other people like, that they find it endearing. Sometimes we can do countersignaling or signaling to a particular group to show them that we are focused on them and trying to impress them, as opposed to everybody else.
Which is fine, but some things we do, like scratching our butt, basically, [laughs] nobody’s impressed by and nobody’s very endeared by. That would be the kind of thing.
COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.
HANSON: 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.
In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”
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 . . .
HANSON: More butt scratching. [laughs]
COWEN: . . . such as the example you mentioned earlier. What would that actually mean in terms of public policy? What gets the subsidy and what gets the tax?
HANSON: Once you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense. It just doesn’t seem like a very viable option, honestly, to subsidize the nonsignaling. Almost everything we’re doing has a big signaling part. It really would be a very difficult task to subsidize then. You’d have to basically pay people to be alone for an hour or something, every day perhaps, with nothing they can use to communicate or use to generate something else.
COWEN: Even then they could just be trying to show the world how many layers they have, right?
HANSON: Right, exactly.
COWEN: Another way we could think about signaling in terms of public policy—we’re all trying to show to others that we care, but it’s usually a select group of others. Maybe the group of others we’re signaling to isn’t a broad enough group. So rather than signaling only, say, to our fellow Americans, we should be signaling abroad.
The United States government should be signaling to potential enemies that we love them, that we’re all one big broad caring world community. Is the real problem with signaling not the waste in the signal but that we signal too narrowly?
HANSON: In that framing, the key issue is the externalities.
COWEN: War has big negative externalities.
COWEN: Without war, we grow, and everything is wonderful.
HANSON: To the extent you can say a certain kind of signaling would reduce war, that’s a great thing obviously, but I’m not sure that’s the main effect of focusing on a larger or smaller group with your signaling.
COWEN: But you want more signaling then, right? If the main problem is to reduce war, you’ve got to show everyone you care, most of all your enemies. So you want to subsidize signaling.
HANSON: What you’re often doing, when you’re focused on a very large scope, is showing how much better we are than them.
It’s not necessarily great when America gets really focused on showing the rest of the world what America is because in the past, that’s often meant we’re trying to show how much better we are than everybody else, and how committed we are to fighting to the end should anybody challenge us, et cetera—not necessarily going to reduce war.
COWEN: Isn’t then the nudge you want to be less nice to people who are on your side, and to be more open and welcoming and generous to potential enemies? Maybe that’s hard to get with tax policy or public policy, but in an ideal first best, that’s the Hansonian remedy for all that ails us?
HANSON: It’s not a crazy intuition. I just think it’s not the two main things. The two main things I’d say is, one, just positive externalities. Obviously reducing war would be good, but innovation is one of the things in our world that we just have a huge lack of incentives for. All sorts of innovation, I think that would be great to promote.
The other thing I think is, 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.
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.
We don’t actually know which medicines work very well, and we don’t much care because the people we’re helping don’t know and the audience doesn’t know. Since none of them really knows what works, we don’t care that much about what works when we push them to get more medicine.
The more that the audience that we were trying to impress knew which kinds of medicines were effective and which were not, the more we would pay attention to that and try to impress people with how much we care about them by getting them stuff that worked.
COWEN: This is striking. You’re in a way going back to Matthew Arnold’s elitist idea that the real problem is we need to elevate who is watching—the critics, the audience, the philistines—and in a funny way, you’re flipping back to a very important draw for education.
Education may be signaling; but if part of what it does is help turn you into an elite, which you’re doing because you’re signaling, but then you become an elite audience, haven’t we in a super roundabout way found the Hansonian third-best argument for why education is still underrated?
HANSON: I think you can take your proposition and make an interesting science fiction novel where there’s a great future . . .
COWEN: [laughs] Not that you would do that.
HANSON: . . . where there’s a good kind of school, and in the good kind of school, the right kind of people are the elites, and then that makes a great world there.
But I don’t think that’s very close to the world we’re in. In our world, the people who are running schools and facing students are not really the kind of elites that I’m focused on here. They don’t necessarily know much better about the things we’re talking about.
COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.
What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?
HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain 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.
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?
COWEN: I never start a podcast by asking for a book summary, and that is deliberate signaling.
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?”
HANSON: Well, I’ve described myself . . .
COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?
HANSON: It offends me when the things I try to do for high motives, other people pretend to do and get just as much credit as me.
HANSON: That’s relatively selfish and personal, but that’s more plausibly where my emotions would be. Yes. I see myself as trying to be an intellectual who looks at the difficult questions, the deep questions, grapples with them, focuses on coming up with hidden but powerful explanations, and then looks for reforms, institutions, mechanisms we could use to make things better.
That’s a noble cause in my mind. There are many people out there who other people are giving credit to them for doing that sort of thing, and I don’t think they deserve it because they’re not actually doing it.
That’s not my broad scope for all morality, but if you want to pick a thing that just makes me mad . . .
COWEN: OK. Does your implied model hold more for individualistic or collectivistic cultures, as they are classified in sociology?
HANSON: I’m not sure I have an implication there. I don’t know.
COWEN: As closed-circuit television becomes more and more common and more of our lives are taped—already the case in the United Kingdom and parts of China—and facial recognition technology is coming, how will this change our behavior in your model?
HANSON: We know something about what people used to be like when they lived in small villages, or even before that, in small bands, and they were basically almost never alone. They were almost always somebody watching them.
In the last few hundred years, we’ve gotten used to having more privacy. It used to be rooms didn’t have doors. It used to be people slept together with other people in the same room. It used to be when people read, they read out loud. People around them could hear them.
Today we can read silently. We can be by ourselves, and we’ve gotten used to a lot of privacy.
COWEN: But more scrutiny — are we going to signal less or signal more?
HANSON: The trend will be to go back to the historical norm.
COWEN: Is that more or less signaling, the historical norm?
HANSON: It’s a different kind. Like I say, we’re maxing out, mostly all the way, already. We’re basically all the time doing things to signal in various ways.
COWEN: Let’s say you’re on a date, and rather than being completely explicit, you give the classic line, “Do you want to come up and see my etchings?”
HANSON: Classic but a bit dated.
COWEN: A bit dated, but at least ever, why has this line ever worked, or indeed has it? How can we explain why the line works? Since it seems really quite transparent.
HANSON: Transparent isn’t the same as clear. In our book we give the example of the person drinking alcohol in public in a paper bag. It’s illegal in most places to drink alcohol in public. Police, if they see you with a bottle of clear alcohol drinking in public, they feel obligated to arrest you.
If you go through the excuse of putting it in a paper bag, they aren’t fooled. They are pretty sure you’re drinking liquor out of the paper bag, but they feel they have an excuse now. They don’t have to arrest you. They can claim they didn’t know.
Similarly, if you invite someone up to see your etchings, they’re not entirely sold yet. They would like an out, and they’d like the out to say they never intended to go anywhere close to where you were suggesting to go. So you need to give them that excuse.
Until the very last moment they want to commit, you need to give them the excuse not only to not commit, to pretend they had no intention of ever going close to committing.
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.”
HANSON: In case it’s not clear to people who have listened so far, I am really nerdy. I was relatively pretty socially unskilled through most of my life. That means I am one of the people who gets taken advantage of by other people when they are more socially skilled, and they talk indirectly to each other in ways that I can’t figure out what they’re saying or what they mean, etc.
We socially unskilled people tend to prefer things to be out in the open and clear, where we can read them and understand them and react, at least at some very basic level. That’s who I am. I am a nerdy person. So personally, I prefer things to be more out in the open where I can have some idea what the heck’s going on, and I will notice them.
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.
Whereas, if you are a nerd like myself, you go through the social world noticing that you don’t understand what’s going on, and your theory of what people are doing doesn’t fit what they’re doing, and you’re just puzzled by that. And you bring in social science to try to help, and you realize it’s not helping you that much either. [laughs] Social science is not giving you a lot more progress to help this strange behavior in the people around you, so it’s a struggle.
COWEN: Because it’s full of hypocrites. [laughs]
HANSON: Right. That means you are more explicitly thinking about social behavior, so you might notice puzzles, ways in which people’s behavior deviates from what they say. And that could give you more of an edge in digging into those puzzles.
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?
HANSON: Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together.
They are feeling a bonding. They’re saying, “We are right. They are wrong.” They are showing a loyalty to their group by expressing their moral superiority to other people. Expressing moral superiority to the other people you are most closely related immediately next to is probably not something people do a lot, nor is it really that wise.
COWEN: There’s also a quality in personality psychology called Machiavellianism. It’s a kind of willingness to manipulate other people. In a large number of papers, actually, Machiavellianism is not correlated with measures of IQ. Does this fit your framework? Violate your framework? How do you make sense of this?
HANSON: I think it fits the idea that we have all these subconscious capacities to be hypocritical and to engage cleverly socially. Those aren’t connected that much to our explicit conscious reasoning.
A smart IQ person who can do an SAT test and do a math problem, they are good at using explicit conscious reasoning to calculate things. That doesn’t much involve their subconscious social calculations, in which context they can manipulate somebody or ask them to do something—and they do it—that sort of thing, which is just a whole separate cognitive capacity.
COWEN: It’s almost as if, in your model, we’re all equally Machiavellian, and personality psychology is mismeasuring true Machiavellianism as a variable. Is that how you think about it?
HANSON: I expect some of us are just better at being Machiavellian. They have better social skills, so we, social nerds, for example, are not so good at that. But I’m just not sure that correlates much with higher IQ. It’s a somewhat different set of skills.
COWEN: The one thing Machiavellianism seems to correlate with best, as I understand the literature, is flexibility. Does that make sense in a Hansonian framework?
HANSON: I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know.
COWEN: Thinking, also, personality psychology—social strategies are very diverse in personality psychology, depending on what you’re like as a person, what your opportunities are.
In your book, if you talk about, say, spending money on healthcare to show that you care or education not always being about learning, jokes being about in-group bonding, and so on—to what extent do you see your book as explaining the diversity of strategy choices? Or do you think you’re telling us what’s the modal or median choice and explicating that?
HANSON: Definitely the latter. The first thing to understand about anything is the middle of the distribution. If you’ve got that wrong, you’re just way off. You need to get that roughly right before you can start looking at the variance in the distribution and along which dimensions, higher or lower variance. I do have the sense that there’s an enormous more to learn than we have uncovered.
I feel that across my career, I was really quite surprised. I figured social sciences would mostly have the basics covered, and I would be making a few minor adjustments on various margins because surely we must have understood the social world really well by now. We’ve been social for so long.
I was surprised to find that it seems I could find big deviations where people have been saying one thing and the truth is really quite different. I’m happy if I can just make the case that the typical case is really quite different than what people have been saying. But of course, the actual case has huge variation around the typical case in a very high dimensional space.
No doubt, there’s enormous complexity to figure out and discover there. I’m just scratching the surface of figuring out that this basic difference, just the middle of the distribution is really far from what people say.
COWEN: Let’s say you’ve perfectly explained the median and the mode. In what direction would you even look if you wanted to write a sequel book explaining the diversity in the distribution? If 90 percent are signaling, it seems the signaling concept doesn’t give you a lot of room to explain the diversity.
HANSON: When you don’t know where the middle of the distribution is, finding out is really pretty valuable.
HANSON: So I think there’s value to do that. Honestly, in our book, we give the first third of the book to a rough summary of the basic theory, and the last two-thirds of the book go over 10 different areas of life, trying to make the case the motives are different. I think you could easily do 20, 30, or even more areas of life.
It seems to me the priority is to go figure out more areas of life and see if the middle of the distribution is anywhere close to what people say. That seems, to me, much more valuable than trying to go figure out the variance because all this behavior is really high dimensional.
There’s not just one point to go find out to find out the variance. You have to look across many dimensions and figure out, where is the middle of the distribution? That’s more canonical. You can say, what’s the most common motive? What’s the typical case? That’s just a lot easier.
On healthcare coverage
COWEN: How much health insurance should a person buy?
HANSON: The RAND Health Insurance Experiment, which is still some of our best data, showed that when people paid full price for medicine, they got less medicine than when they had free medicine. That extra free medicine, apparently, had no net health benefits. That suggests that one metric is, get the sort of medicine you would pay for if you had to pay for it out of your pocket.
COWEN: Say I’m an independent contractor. There’s no mandate. I earn $100,000 a year. I have no employer who gives me anything. How many dollars should I actually spend?
HANSON: You should get a relatively minimal plan of the sort that might cut back medical spending by a third or a half compared to what most people do. Either you make a conscious choice, or you have the financial incentives that on the margin, you face a price. You, therefore, just don’t do things because they’re free.
You try to follow heuristic—would I pay for this out of pocket if I had to? If you wouldn’t pay for it out of pocket, skip it maybe, unless there’s an especially strong reason to think that’s one of the exceptions, which there are some.
COWEN: A recent New York Times article indicated that in 1966, three-quarters of all Americans had a lot of faith in their medical leaders, and now it’s only 34 percent. Of course, we’re spending much, much more on healthcare, either in absolute terms or as a percent of GDP. Does that go against your theory? If there’s now so much cynicism, why is spending more on healthcare showing that you care?
HANSON: As you just said, I’m focused on the middle of the distribution, the middle of the distribution across time and across space, so I don’t focus that much on explaining trends. I, actually, am somewhat disapproving of trend tracking because the middle of the distribution of human behavior is so poorly understood, and there’s so many huge opportunities there.
I resent the distraction of people who focus on the difference between this country and the neighboring country or this decade and the decade before or after. That’s all the sort of thing you want to get around to once you’ve understood the basics of what was happening, and I don’t think we do.
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?
HANSON: The trend that I’m aware of is that when we have tools to help us do something, like remember phone numbers, we get worse at that thing because we offload the task onto the tool. Then, we get better at other things. We put more investment into other things. So plausibly, in whatever category we get better tools, we will simply reallocate our mental resources to other tasks that we don’t have tools for.
COWEN: There is a way of reading your book where you’re actually teaching us how to do it, kind of the reverse of Machiavelli, who pretended to be teaching evil rulers but actually was complaining about them in Straussian terms.
What you’re doing is complaining about hypocrisy, but the Straussian or Machiavellian reading of your book is, you’re teaching us all how to be better at it but with a very long-term goal: that, eventually, we’ll evolve into beings that don’t do this at all.
HANSON: I think you’ll notice that it’s almost impossible to talk about hypocrisy without people presuming you’re complaining about it. That is, we all just presume that any mention of hypocrisy must be a complaint. It is the overwhelming context in which mentions of hypocrisy come. I think we tried pretty hard in the book not to really be complaining about hypocrisy.
We’re trying to say it’s there and it’s important, and if you miss it, you’re going to be unhappy and just not understand the world. But we’re not really recommending wholesale changes in human behavior. Since, if I say 90 percent of human behavior is signaling, then we’re pretty much accepting that’s going to continue.
We try to be really clear. We like people, in case it’s not clear. Pretty much every other living creature on Earth is much less admirable and interesting than humans. Humans are where it’s at. Humans are the people you want to talk to, you want to interact with, you want to form relationships with. Humans are great.
Humans aren’t what they pretend to be. [laughs] But what they actually are is spectacular.
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?”
HANSON: I am human, a nerdy human, but still human, so I have the full, usual range of things that I can enjoy and like. Poetry and music and visual arts, they’re all part of that. They’re a part of things that I like because I’m human. But when I choose an identity, in a sense, which I have, and I say what’s important to me and where I want to focus, that gets low priority.
Another way to think about this is, Tyler and I, over the years, have talked about the value of reading the classics.
HANSON: There’s a critique of the classics which says that, if all these people have read the classics before and they haven’t been able to extract from these classics some explicit statement that, now, you could put in a textbook and read, somehow you have to go back to the classics and get it yourself by reading their original words.
You might say, yes, you might get it, but then you’ll never be able to tell anybody else that either, so what’s the point other than your personal enjoyment? I put a priority on discovering things intellectually that I could explain to other people, that I could transfer to other people.
To be part of this collective enterprise where lots of us work together, discover things, tell each other, and then we all know more as a result over time—I think that’s a wonderful thing to be part of, and that’s what I hope to be part of.
These experiences I could have that would give me some sort of insight in a way that I couldn’t communicate to other people, I figure, what’s the point, then? That’s not part of this grand enterprise that I’m trying to be part of.
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?
HANSON: No. [laughs] My book about the Age of Em is about this future scenario where brain emulations become feasible and cheap and then, basically, take over the economy. That economy would grow much faster than ours, so it would even more quickly become visible on a cosmic scale unless it destroys itself.
Emulations—they see themselves in virtual reality, so they experience that in virtual reality, but they are made out of real resources. They are made out of real computers with real energy and real structural support and all those things. They grow their economy very fast by making more of those things.
On a cosmic timescale, they would grow very fast and take over the earth, take over the solar system, grow out farther, become a big, visible thing that we don’t see. Fermi’s paradox is the question. If we seem to have this bright future to grow and become visible, why don’t we see anything out there that’s visible? That’s the key question. It’s a hard and somewhat scary question.
COWEN: When people upload, is that itself an act of signaling? Or are they going against their instincts to signal?
HANSON: Fortunately, I can just analyze this world [laughs] without knowing why individuals make those choices. There are a lot of places in economics where we can say, “Look, if some people do this, there’ll be all this activity there, and then we can talk about it.” People do it for all sorts of reasons, and we don’t necessarily need to know why.
COWEN: Won’t signaling keep us out of this grand ant farm? If the Age of Em is 99.9 percent of universal GDP, as it would be over time with all this multiplication, then signaling doesn’t explain 90 percent of everything. It’s whatever gets people to upload that has the explanatory power of the whole sum of world history.
HANSON: You could say that today accurately. You could say the fact that humanity is vast and powerful compared to all the other animals on the earth is not primarily explained by signaling.
We, as rich people with the society we are using and building on, we use much of our resources and time for signaling, but the existence of all these resources that we can use for this purpose, that’s not explained by signaling. That’s explained by whatever makes humans special and powerful.
COWEN: As far as I can tell, there are no aliens from other worlds in the audience for this talk, so what or where is the great filter that prevents the emergence of life everywhere, alien visitors all the time, different civilizations dropping down every day? “Oh, who’s next? Hi. Welcome to the party.”
HANSON: The great filter is whatever causes ordinary matter to eventually not become a visible thing on the universal scale, so that’s what the great filter, by definition . . .
COWEN: What’s your definition of the great filter?
HANSON: The two main categories for the great filter are stuff before our point along the path and stuff after our point on the path. And the problem is that anything that gives us evidence that things before us on the path are easier is evidence suggesting it’s harder farther on the path, which is bad news for our future.
COWEN: Like if it’s mitochondria, we should throw a party because we’ve already managed that.
HANSON: If we thought that was the hard part, and we see mitochondria elsewhere in the universe, then we go, “Well, that wasn’t so hard, and maybe now our future is the hard.”
The obvious, easy answer is to say the hardest step was the very first step because it’s the one we know the least about. It’s the one that does look really hard, and so you can breathe a somewhat sigh of relief saying, “Well, that’s our best answer. The best answer is the very first step was really hard, and because of that, our future could be bright.”
What that predicts is, wherever that happened in the galaxy, the only other life we should ever see in the galaxy is other life that came from that same origin point. Now, our star started in a cluster of stars that were all born about the same time, and in the last 4 billion years, that cluster has spread out to a ring around the center of the galaxy.
There’s roughly a hundred other stars out there plausibly that might have life because they had the same origin of life as we did. But if we find life anywhere else, then that says, “No, that’s not the hard step.”
COWEN: Given all that, what’s your best candidate for the great filter?
HANSON: The very first step.
COWEN: The very first step, OK.
HANSON: But I don’t think you should rest easy on that. That is, it’s the best guess, but how sure can you be of that?
If you think there’s only a 20 percent chance that it might not be that, then you have to say, “There’s a 20 percent chance that there’s the rest of the great filter, and it might be in front of us, and a 20 percent chance of dying soon isn’t something to worry about.”
COWEN: In an Age of Em world, I take it you’re of the view that to some extent, you identify with the copies of you within the computer.
HANSON: I predict that the Ems themselves will identify with other copies of themselves because that’s very straightforward. They are very similar to each other. They’ve been through that process many times before, and their culture will select for that attitude, so that’s an easy win.
COWEN: But your upload — to what extent would you, will you, identify with your upload?
HANSON: I don’t know the answer to that. What I can say is there’s . . .
COWEN: But you’ve thought about this more than anyone else in the entire world.
HANSON: No, no. 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.
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.
That seems like a really safe guess because there’s so many people in the world that have so much variation. I at the moment believe that I would identify with it, but hey, you turn it on in front of me, and I chat for a while, and maybe I will say, “No, I guess I don’t.” That’s a possibility.
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.
COWEN: How much do you identify with them?
HANSON: In a theoretical sense, I will claim to identify with them, but in an emotional sense, I almost never think about them. The subject almost never comes up. Emotional identity only happens when people challenge the identity or call it out in some way so that you have to choose.
COWEN: Their consumption behavior doesn’t predict yours, so you never say, “Some other Robin Hanson is having a chocolate ice cream cone, so I can pass on this one”?
HANSON: No. The many worlds, these other worlds, you have no way to interact with, and so you can basically ignore them. That’s why, socially, they have very little effect on us.
COWEN: You could still identify with them.
HANSON: You could.
COWEN: You could say, “I feel very diversified, so in my life, I can take all kinds of risks because I know in the other lives out there, they’re meeting different fates.” I don’t know anyone who behaves that way. Do you?
HANSON: I don’t think that makes sense as a decision theory point of view. If there are many versions of you, you still care about how many there are, and the more the better, so if you take stupid risks that kill a lot off, that’s bad.
In the same way that if you look down an ordinary decision tree . . .
COWEN: It’s less bad than if there’s only the one you . . .
HANSON: No, no, no.
COWEN: . . . the way Bryan Caplan would say, right?
HANSON: Ordinary standard decision theory has you looking down a game tree, and very quickly the game tree has millions and billions of copies of you. Down the game tree of almost any game, there’s vast numbers of you down there.
That doesn’t mean you’re willing to take more risks about the more distant future because there’s so many versions of you there. You’re still worried to have more of them and not less.
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.
HANSON: Uh-oh. [laughs]
COWEN: Please feel free to pass, but I’ll toss out a few candidates, and you tell me if you think they’re under- or overrated.
First, Tolstoy, the Russian author.
HANSON: Correctly rated.
COWEN: Following professional sports.
HANSON: Because it’s not something I like.
HANSON: Other people seem to enjoy it just fine, and I’m not saying they should stop, per se, but it doesn’t do that much for me. I did watch the Super Bowl.
COWEN: But do you have a reason for thinking it’s less interesting than what other people seem to find?
HANSON: If we go to my core values, which are about insight and being part of a process that produces more insight, there’s just not much insight being generated there.
COWEN: The recent movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
HANSON: I think it deserves Best Picture, so I guess mildly underrated because it hasn’t gotten Best Picture yet.
COWEN: What’s interesting in the movie?
HANSON: It makes you think it’s going to be one of these preachy things where it’s got the good guys and the bad guys with the usual labels, and then it swaps it around and takes you somewhere else, and that’s refreshing.
COWEN: The prospect of quantum computing, underrated or overrated in its importance?
HANSON: Because it’s one of these things that’s a really big potential change, and there’s a lot of futurists out there who are eager for anything that looks like a really big potential change. But once you look at it, you realize you actually can’t do that much with quantum computers that’s more than you can do with ordinary computers.
There are just a few things you can do. You can factor numbers, which means you have to change cryptography. You can do some quantum simulations, which hardly anybody ever does anyway. So honestly, it doesn’t make that much difference.
COWEN: Straussian readings of books, looking for their possibly hidden or alternative meanings.
HANSON: Correctly rated.
COWEN: How is it rated?
HANSON: [laughs] It’s disapproved of explicitly but indulged in constantly.
HANSON: Many authors of many things do have hidden meanings. That is extremely correct, that hidden meanings are all over the place in fiction, nonfiction, even talks like this. People constantly have more than one level.
An example I give on my talks on The Elephant in the Brain is saying, if you are an actor, and you are given a script, and the script is basically a scene at a restaurant where you and your lover are telling each other how much you love each other and how great your relationship is, the actor will throw up and say “I can’t act this” because it needs to have more than one level.
They will look for the hidden motive of this character: Why they are here being so nice? Am I going to break up with them? Am I afraid they’re going to break up with me?
Only when they find the hidden motive can they actually do the scene, which is just more evidence that we are constantly expecting multiple levels of meanings in fiction, nonfiction, and everywhere.
COWEN: The movement known as effective altruism, suggesting we should be more rational about how we give away our money.
HANSON: Mildly underrated, that is, it’s still got legs to grow. It’s never going to be an overwhelming movement for the whole society.
COWEN: Why not?
HANSON: This is going to how informed the audience is for signaling, which we talked about before. When people are giving to charity or doing nice things, they act as if they’re trying to help. That’s the thing they say they’re doing.
What they’re really doing is trying to show that they feel empathy, that they feel a vulnerability to pain around them, and so if you were in pain around them, they might feel vulnerable to help you.
People do things to appear like they’re trying to help, but because their audience hardly knows what actually helps, they don’t pay much attention to doing things that actually help. They just do something that looks like it would be a reaction to someone who felt like they wanted to help.
The more that people knew what actually helped or not, then the more that would pressure people who were trying to help to show that they have this feeling to do stuff that really helped, which would be great.
Overall, that would be a way to create a more informed audience, is to have more people who are effective altruists. But of course, you have to be pretty aware and smart and dedicated and paying attention to actually be someone who knows which charities are how effective. That can’t be that large a fraction of the population, for a while, at least.
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.
Why aren’t private companies more interested in prediction markets?
HANSON: When you’re in an organization, and you’re doing much of anything, you are concerned that people might challenge what you’re doing and say, “Why are you doing that?” A great favorite excuse for anybody in any organization is, “I’m collecting information. I’m analyzing.”
There’s the standard thing that’s a favorite excuse for most activities, and it gives you the impression that people in an organization think they want more information and they want more analysis because that’s what they’re using as this excuse for lots of things.
They’re lying. That is, they’re actually more often playing politics. That is, a lot of corporate activity is about creating coalitions and getting support for your coalition and undermining other rival coalitions. That’s what people are actually doing, but they want to give lip service to the information thing.
So when you say, “There’s a great new institution for information,” they’re kind of put in a corner, saying, “Of course I want that. Don’t I?”
HANSON: Sometimes they even adopt it as a way to show off, but they find, of course, they don’t actually want the information. A concrete example that I think makes this . . .
COWEN: But a lot of managers are willing to take their companies public, and then they’ll have a contract with options where the value of the options is determined by a stock price traded on public markets. Maybe that’s become more rare today, but there’s plenty of it. Managers don’t, in general, manage to defeat it when the idea makes sense.
HANSON: Oh sure, but that’s not the main reason they’re doing it. They take a company public to get the revenue from the sale of the company. They’re not doing it because then there’ll be a price later that they can follow. That’s a side effect.
I would say if you have a project with a deadline today, quite often, that goes badly. That is, you’ll have reviews of the project, and people will say, “Yes, of course we’re going to make the deadline.” Then finally the deadline comes, and you don’t make the deadline, and you’ve failed.
This happens a lot, and if you ask people, “Why does that happen?” they often say, “It was because they wouldn’t listen to us about the problems with the project and all the things going wrong, and they kept saying it would work.”
If you turn it around and look at it from the guy running the project’s point of view, they’re thinking, “I might fail on this project. It might not make the deadline. What will my excuse be? I need a good excuse.”
Their favorite excuse is usually, “Everything was going fine until all of the sudden, something came out of left field. No one could have seen it coming. It’ll never happen again. It knocked us flat, but you don’t need to hold anybody accountable or prepare or change it in any way because this was a one-time event.”
In order to make that excuse work, you need everybody to say “It’s going fine” until all of a sudden, it doesn’t. The prediction market gets in the way of that. It shows everybody that from an early point, people knew this wasn’t going to work, and so then people will hold you accountable for, “Why didn’t you do something about it?”
COWEN: You started your career in the hard sciences. You also worked some number of years at NASA. How has this affected how you approach economics and social science?
HANSON: In many ways. One way related to this book is that in physics and software and the hard sciences, it was obvious and expected that people were eager for innovation, that people were looking for new kinds of transistors, new kinds of software organization, new kinds of things.
They knew that changing would be expensive and hard. They knew it would be risky. They knew that most innovations would fail, and nevertheless, they were still really eager for innovation.
My first connection with social science was seeing that in social science, there appeared to be a lot of really big powerful innovations that had great potential, and that was a lot of what made me want to go into social science. I said, “Look, look at all the impact I could have by going into social science and doing these innovations.”
It wasn’t until a little while I realized, “The reason why it’s so easy to find big improvements in social science is we almost never actually apply them. We don’t actually make the improvements that we could.”
That set up this puzzle for me. But in part, my initial social science career was all about innovation, i.e., new mechanisms, new institutions, studying the institutions we have, what variations could work better, all with an eye to trying to make it better.
It took me a while to realize that that wasn’t working because we don’t actually apply much of this whole literature about how to make things better in social science. That’s one big way I was influenced.
COWEN: You’re working now on blockchain-based prediction markets. Is that correct?
HANSON: I am consulting with some companies doing that. I have some criticisms of them, but I hope they succeed.
COWEN: The idea of doing prediction markets on a combinatorial basis, that’s largely your contribution, is that correct?
HANSON: One variation on how to do combinatorial prediction markets. I wrote a first paper talking about combinatorial prediction markets, and I was part of a project to produce Bayesian network-based combinatorial prediction markets, and we did that. We succeeded in making ones that were computable and accurate.
COWEN: Tell us in a sentence what the word combinatorial means in this context.
HANSON: Billions and billions, as Carl Sagan would have said, [laughs] lots and lots of variables.
In an ordinary prediction market, you might bet on the election, which candidate will win or something, and then you’ve got a handful of things you’re betting on. Will this candidate win or not? What will be the vote share?
If you take a lot of these questions, you can create combinations of them, and if you have 10 questions, each of whom has 10 answers, you can make 10 to the 10 possible questions, which is 10 billion.
You might think that would be impossible to actually do, but we can do that. We can not only create all those questions, we can allow people to effectively manage it so that they are making all of those billions of numbers reasonable.
COWEN: A reader writes in, “Ask him his 12 rules of life. Just one.”
HANSON: Just one rule or one set of 12?
COWEN: One of the 12.
HANSON: Wow, that’s a tough one. Early in life, you’re a seller, not a buyer.
COWEN: OK. You’ve written about this notion of a view quake book, a book you read — it changes how you think about so many different things, and you go around thinking about it, talking about it for weeks, months, maybe years.
Do view quake books dwindle as you get older? And if so, how should this alter one’s intellectual diet?
HANSON: I was very selfish as a young person, and I had very little career sense or sense of how to succeed in life. I was just really interested in things, and so I would go into an area and read about it as it held all these interesting insights, and as those ran out, I got bored and switched to other things.
It took me a while — actually, until the age of 34 — to go back to school to get my PhD, where I had a little more career sense to realize I would have to be a seller, not a buyer, to make things that other people would want.
I think if you’re eager for these big innovative changes in how you look at things, I think there’s a peak, somewhere in the middle, perhaps. There’s two contrary effects.
One is that 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.
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.
HANSON: Many of them can be, but over life, you’re also doing the diminishing returns of jumping to the easy, obvious wins first, and those slowly run out.
I’m not sure if in my life, I’m seeing a trajectory overall of view quakes going down. I may be an exception. I think when you’re really young, you don’t know enough to even have a view quake because a view quake is, you have to have some way of thinking about things that is then changed.
When you don’t really have a way of thinking about something, you don’t know enough to have a way, you aren’t changed, so there’s a sense in which you can really only surprise or shock someone who has a theory, who has an opinion about something.
It takes time to acquire these expectations such that you could then be surprised.
COWEN: You have a master’s in the philosophy of science from University of Chicago. Why did you do that?
HANSON: I was a physics undergraduate, and one of the things people kept saying was that there was this science thing, and they credited it for all the great things I was learning in physics.
The more I heard about that, the more I wondered, “What’s that? That sounds really important, and it doesn’t make much sense.” They kept saying contradictory things about it, so I wanted to get to the bottom of, “What is this science thing that’s supposedly so great, that we have all this stuff called science because of it?”
COWEN: And were you . . . ?
HANSON: What I found is, there is no such thing. It’s a myth. It’s just a name for a whole collection of idiosyncratic detail in different areas that has very little in common, or coherent. Once I realized that it was one of these myths, then I lost interest.
I do think learning philosophy is useful mainly because it inoculates you against other philosophy, and there is a lot of philosophy loose in the world. Unless you can find a world where you won’t be exposed to it later, you may find it in your interest to be exposed to it on purpose early so that you are inoculated.
On improving rational thinking
COWEN: For intelligent human beings, collectively, what would be the best way for us to improve rational thinking?
HANSON: Gee, that sounds like a really easy toss-up for prediction markets.
COWEN: To look at prediction markets and to believe them.
HANSON: If we had a lot more prediction markets, then you could just look at the prediction market on any particular question and just believe its answer. That would be the usual way to decide what to believe on a very wide range of topics, and it would be a rational answer.
COWEN: Now assume I’m a wannabe trader, and I go to Robin Hanson, and I say, “Robin, how should I learn to think better about when to trade in these markets, when to believe the correct price ought to be something other than what I observe?”
HANSON: This isn’t anything you shouldn’t already know, but I’d say specialize. Many people, especially in ordinary conversations, and even in financial markets, they feel this obligation to have an opinion about everything.
It’s actually one of the reasons I’m somewhat wary about a format like this. I’m wary of this expectation that you should have an opinion about everything that you’re willing to defend and go far with, right?
You will be better, a contribution to the world will be better, and your financial portfolio will also be better if you focus on knowing some things, and on other things, you might practice thinking about them because they connect and it’s useful, but don’t have much confidence in it. Certainly, don’t go betting on it because you don’t know. For God’s sake, you don’t know.
COWEN: But keep in mind, you told us before that as we get older, making connections across different fields, which is a bit removed from specializing, that’s something we get much better at.
HANSON: Right, that’s the hard thing. It isn’t just specializing in one thing, you may specialize in a dozen or dozens of things, but out of the millions of things there are, that’s still quite a specialization.
This is one of the hard things to judge, especially as you get older and have more potential capacity, is, when do I know enough on something that it’s worth for me getting in there and learning more? And when do I think I have enough confidence in something that I’m willing to stand up and say, “I’m going to put myself up against the best and say I know as much as they do”?
COWEN: What’s sometimes called the rationality community, is that growing too insular? Is it mainly about virtue signaling? What does it mean to have a true community of people trying to be more rational? What do you think of the rationality community today?
HANSON: I think the impetus is like the effect of altruism impetus. You look at the world and you say, “The world is failing me. Let’s make a group and be better.” With the effect of altruism you can say, “Let’s identify good charities and support them together.” With rationality you say, “Let’s try to be more rational together.”
Groups that form around a goal can work better or worse, depending on how well the goal can be verified by the group. If you’re forming a group based on how dedicated we are, say, what percentage of our income are we willing to devote, that’s a really easy thing to monitor. It’s really possible.
Some of the effective altruists have formed subgroups where they say, “We donate 10 percent of our income to charity. We’ve committed to that, and we can show you our tax returns,” et cetera. That’s something a group can do. They could also, somewhat, commit to following certain measures of effectiveness of charities, randomized trial or something like that.
Having a group identified around the concept of rationality, [laughs] it’s harder because how do you tell if we are being rational?
COWEN: And we all self-deceive, as you’ve pointed out in your book.
HANSON: Right. The typical case, most people are looking for signs of rationality mainly so that they can see that some of the signs apply to them and tell themselves that they’re better than other people. This is actually one of my complaints for a lot of the most popular discussions of prediction markets.
I’m mainly interested in prediction markets because it’s a potential institution that we can create, and then we can all be better off by having these prices.
But in fact, most of the interest in prediction markets has come, say, through the book The Wisdom of Crowds or Superforecasting, where the content is mostly about which among us are better? Who are the people among us who are wiser and more rational and informed such that they can crow and brag about it and other people should be ashamed? The institution itself that allowed people to do this, the prediction market, is a secondary, background sort of thing.
Similarly, in rationality, I’m afraid there’s such a strong human tendency to want to collect these signs of “I’m smarter than you” that a group that defines itself by rationality ends up, in practice, just collecting “I know Bayes’s theorem,” “I know about overconfidence,” et cetera, and then showing off that in any one context they can invoke those things.
People like that very often say, “You’re citing a psychology study. Didn’t you know that psychology is all crap now because none of it replicates?” [laughs] Because that’s a thing that sounds sophisticated and rational.
COWEN: You have encouraged people to think about this idea of futarchy, a kind of prediction markets for governing. You sometimes say, “Vote on values, bet on beliefs.” If there were a prediction market in futarchy itself, what would the price of futarchy and its realization be selling at?
HANSON: Well, it would depend on the time scale and scope of the application.
COWEN: A hundred years.
HANSON: It’s not about to happen soon. Over a hundred years, ignoring the Age of Em, say.
COWEN: Sure, ignoring the Age of Em.
HANSON: Then it’s plausible . . .
COWEN: This is why they’re combinatorial markets.
HANSON: I think it’s at least a 30 percent chance that it will have some substantial scope in a hundred years. That’s not huge confidence, but I think the potential is large enough to be worth trials and investigations.
I talk about futarchy as a form of governance. It’s just much easier to get people excited and interested if you apply the example to the biggest possible things you could apply it to, like governing nations or even the world.
That’s obviously not the place to start for initial trials.
COWEN: Sure, but if it makes it harder to govern in companies, is futarchy compatible with enough sense of some kind of community or nation building or people having something in common to use it for a government, which is typically harder to hold together than a company in some ways, at least over historical spans?
HANSON: There’s two issues here. One is a multiple equilibria. I’d say if you look at the example of cost accounting, you can imagine a world where nobody does cost accounting. You say on your organization, “Let’s do cost accounting here.”
That’s a problem because you’d be heard as saying, “Somebody around here is stealing and we need to find out who.” So that might be discouraged.
In a world where everybody else does cost accounting, you say, “Let’s not do cost accounting here.” That will be heard as saying, “Could we steal and just not talk about it?” which will also seem negative.
Similarly, with prediction markets, you could imagine a world like ours where nobody does them, and then your proposing to do it will send a bad signal. You’re basically saying, “People are bullshitting around here. We need to find out who and get to the truth.”
But in a world where everybody was doing it, it would be similarly hard not to do it. If every project with a deadline had a betting market and you say, “Let’s not have a betting market on our project deadline,” you’d be basically saying, “We’re not going to make the deadline, folks. Can we just set that aside and not even talk about it?”
That’s one issue. It’s potential that if we switch to a new equilibria, then it would be a standard thing, just like cost accounting. Cost accounting, is that compatible with real organizations and emotions?
There’s a sense in which it can’t help, really. You’re being very critical about people and then very negative, trying to track all their money and where it goes, and suspect that they might be stealing. Nevertheless, once it’s the standard, then you’ve got to follow it along.
Decision markets of futarchy, you might say, have more of a potential because we often run organizations and communities via the myths and hypocrisies that we have with each other about what we say works and what has what consequences.
To the extent that these prediction markets were on those topics, they might get in the way of this sort of hypocrisy. But of course, just as with cost accounting, an organization that has good emotional bonding because they don’t use cost accounting could still function pretty badly because everybody’s stealing.
Then you might imagine new organizations that show up that compete with them that do do cost accounting that don’t quite support everybody emotionally as deeply as they might but actually function. They could win out.
Similarly, prediction market–based organizations that actually have accurate forecasts about what works and what doesn’t would beat out other organizations that were more emotionally indulgent.
COWEN: Last question from a reader. “What common topics do you, Robin, feel you have your least-considered positions on?”
HANSON: The ones that I don’t think much about, especially certainly art, personal relationship advice, [laughs] career advice. I basically have been trying to focus on grand ideas. I’m neglecting everything else that other people pay more attention to, so I’m just not going to be very good at all the rest of that.
COWEN: Is that contrary to signaling theory that you would have such supposedly poorly-thought-out positions on relationship advice? Doesn’t signaling theory predict the opposite? Don’t you in the book, in fact, have a lot of opinions on relationship advice? Not always disclosed as such.
HANSON: Perhaps indirectly. There’s what’s called countersignaling, and signaling to different audiences.
Sometimes people do try to signal, say, that they aren’t very good at relationships in order to convince you that “What you see on the surface is all there is to me, and you don’t have to worry about me having hidden motives and other layers that will try to fool you. What you see is what you get.”
That’s often, of course, not always true, but it is a stance that some people can credibly take.
COWEN: I very much recommend to you all Robin Hanson’s new book with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. Thank you very much, Robin Hanson.
HANSON: Thank you.
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.
HANSON: What’s your name, sir?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Bryan Caplan. When you give that over 90 percent–signaling share, how would that change if you defined signaling narrowly as conscious signaling, as I generally do?
So it only counts as signaling if you actually are doing something that you don’t want to do while, say, pretending that you do, or you are actually doing something where your true motivation is not the stated motivation. What would that do to your signaling share?
HANSON: It would probably drop to 30 percent or less.
BRYAN CAPLAN: Fascinating.
COWEN: Next question. Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Drawing these two worlds of prediction markets and the signaling, if investing in prediction markets is not about predicting underlying policy or any of the things we are trying to understand by prediction markets would signal, if 90 percent of what we do is signaling there, would that impact the advantages of having prediction markets? Did you think about it?
HANSON: I think many people favor prediction markets as a political signal of the kind of things they like in the world. That is, people want to take the stance that they’re in favor of truth and accuracy, and they’re against all those people out there who are lying and hypocrites.
So they might want to take the stance of favoring prediction markets even if they don’t actually want to look at the answers or trade in them, as a signal, as a stance about the world.
COWEN: If I could have a follow-up, aren’t prediction markets, in essence, going to teach us how to signal better and thus waste more resources? In economic terminology, they’ll push us more into separating equilibria, and if we simply knew less, we’d be more in pooling equilibria, where you don’t distinguish yourself.
The prediction market will tell you what are the right clothes to buy to impress someone on a date, or how to spruce up your resume, and if 90 percent of everything’s signaling, it will make signaling worse, no?
HANSON: That argument suggests that all technological progress is a waste because anytime we can do anything better, we’ll just do it in the service of signaling, which is all a waste.
I think that, in fact, we’re already mostly maxing out on our efforts, signaling all over the place, so there really wasn’t much more to spend, but we can get more from it. When we have new technology, we might signal by getting a faster car, but new technology gets us a faster car, so we get to places faster.
Similarly, we might be signaling via promoting prediction markets and using them, but then we might get more accurate answers on lots of the topics that we want answers to.
COWEN: Next question. Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We talked at the start about whether a podcast is . . . what form of signaling it is, and it seems like it’s both going to be information for the backpack, but also saying that, “I’m the sort of person who listens to Conversations with Tyler.”
My question is, how much of signaling is about relatively objective virtue, things that everyone thinks are good, and how much is emphasizing that you’re part of a certain specific tribal group?
HANSON: When people talk about signaling initially, they usually, by default, think about signaling ability, of being smart, being conscientious, being energetic, healthy, et cetera, and people tend to neglect signaling loyalty.
I’d say roughly half of signaling is signaling loyalty. It’s a big fraction, a huge fraction, but it’s not something we would like to admit.
First of all, we don’t like to admit we’re signaling at all. But if we’re going to be signaling, we’d rather admit we were signaling being smart and conscientious and hardworking and knowledgeable, rather than signaling that we’re showing this group that we’re one of them.
COWEN: Next question. Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What kind of signaling if someone just committed suicide? What kind of signal are they sending?
COWEN: The question was, what kind of signal is someone sending if they commit suicide?
HANSON: They are following the human package of feelings. They aren’t necessarily sending any particular signal.
Just to be clear, humans are enormously complicated. Humans have a wide range of motives for all sorts of behaviors. In each area, they have a main motive they’d like to call your attention to, if they have a choice.
Our main thesis in the book is that they’re often wrong about what the main motive is, and there’s another main motive that’s more important, and that’s commonly signaling. It’s not to say that signaling is everything or it’s even the only thing.
It’s the big thing that people don’t like to talk about that explains a large fraction of behavior, if I have to just mention one thing. I do not mean to say that people are only always signaling. Certainly not consciously, as was mentioned.
I use the example of “the dog ate my homework.” That works as an excuse because dogs sometimes eat homework. Certainly, all the other things we like to call attention to as our usual motives, they work as excuses because they’re sometimes true. We sometimes do get healthy from going to the doctor. We sometimes do learn things in school. We sometimes do help people with charity.
It’s not true that this is all fake and all something else, but the claim is that those things are more claimed than they actually are, but they sometimes are.
COWEN: What if I raise the question of there being multiple levels of explanation, so if you ask me, “Well, what percentage of world activity is ruled by the downward-sloping demand curve?” I’d say pretty close to 100 percent, maybe 100 percent, right?
HANSON: Absolutely, sure.
COWEN: There’d be widespread agreement on that, but that doesn’t mean the downward-sloping demand curve explains 100 percent of what’s going on. There are many other levels of explanation, what persons are expecting, or the meaning a particular action has to them, covered by other social sciences, for instance, the humanities.
The downward-sloping demand curve, in a sense, its explanatory power is really quite small.
Would you agree to a comparable redescription for signaling that by one metric, it is very large and significant, but that’s only one layer of explanation for social phenomena in general, and there’s another way in which signaling is really a pretty small percentage of what’s going on?
HANSON: Sure, absolutely. Anything you’re trying to explain, you’re trying to explain in terms of causes. There are local proximate causes, and there are distal far causes, and there’s a whole chain in between. You have to identify where along that chain you’re trying to talk about.
We’re talking about people’s behavior, and we’re focused on the proximate explanation. Then you’re focused on what was in their head a moment before, and what sort of feelings did they have, et cetera. Whereas, if you’re looking for an ultimate explanation, then you have to go back to physics and the creation of the universe, evolution and selection, et cetera.
Then we’re usually talking at some intermediate level, but it’s less clear which level. So I would say, for our book, we’re focused on relatively distal social explanations, which are more about the basic forces that shape our common social institutions. Why are schools the way they are? Why are hospitals the way they are?
COWEN: This one dimension, it matters to you a disproportionate amount, right? You would agree, or you wouldn’t have written the book. And this ultimately, in my vision, ties into Robin Hanson, the moralist.
My Straussian reading of this book is that it’s presented as amoral, but underneath, it’s really deeply moral rather than morally neutral, and you’re, in a sense, afraid to signal your actual moral condemnatory stance. Agree or disagree?
HANSON: I agree that we tried not to go into the moral outrage voice in the book. [laughs]
COWEN: Not outraged, but scorned.
HANSON: You can imagine a book that had that voice, but we didn’t think that would work so well.
We think our first priority is to convince you of the facts of these motives, that they really are there, and we thought if we took on a really strong moral tone or connected this to political factions or something, you wouldn’t be persuaded by our arguments. You would think that we are taking sides in some other battles.
So we thought we should take this more neutral stance with respect to the book, and we also thought that we should try to be positive about humans. I have this essay from a long time ago about the cynic’s conundrum.
COWEN: Sure, it’s on your home page.
HANSON: Right. The cynic’s conundrum is that the cynic is assigning low motives to other people’s behavior, and the conundrum is that, when you ask why is the cynic behaving as a cynic or speaking cynically, the most plausible explanation is that they have low motives for their behavior.
In fact, it does seem that on average, people who talk cynically, especially in this sort of whiny, complainy, cynical voice, do have low motives for that, and they are somewhat failures and people you don’t want to affiliate with.
There’s a sense in which most people don’t want to seem cynical because the people who seem cynical are not the sort of people you want to seem. We didn’t want to seem that sort of a whiny, cynical, complainy sort of person who plausibly is a failure and a loser, and not the sort of person you want to listen to or associate with.
We want to be, honestly, what we are. We like humans. We like people. We think people have great potential, and even if they aren’t what they seem, we are happy with them.
COWEN: With that, I thank you all for coming. Robin Hanson, thank you very much.
HANSON: Thank you all.