The Social Signaling Problem

People like to signal. A LOT. And it is incredibly annoying.

It’s also pretty detrimental to the functioning of the country.

Take Prohibition. The majority of Americans never supported Prohibition, yet it wasn’t just a law passed by Congress or a handful of states, but an actual amendment to the Constitution, (the 18th) ratified by 46 states (only Rhode Island and Connecticut declined to ratify. I assume they had a large Irish population or depended on sales of imported alcohol.)

Incredibly, a coalition driven primarily by people who couldn’t even vote (women’s suffrage was granted in the 19th amendment) managed to secure what looks like near-unanimous support for a policy which the majority of people actually opposed!

Obviously a lot of people voted for Prohibition without understanding what it actually entailed. Most probably thought that other people’s intemperate drinking should be curbed, not their own, completely reasonable consumption. Once people understood what Prohibition actually entailed, they voted for its repeal.

But this is only part of the explanation, for people support many policies they don’t actually understand, but most of these don’t become disastrous Constitutional amendments.

What we have is a runaway case of social signaling. People did not actually want to get rid of all of the alcohol. People wanted to signal that they were against public drunkenness, Germans (this was right after WWI,) and maybe those Irish. Prohibition also had a very vocal group of people fighting for it, while the majority of people who were generally fine with people having the occasional beer weren’t out campaigning for the “occasional beer” party. It was therefore more profitable for a politician to signal allegiance to the pro-Prohibition voters than to the “occasional beer” voter.

Social signaling leads people to support laws because they like the idea of the law, rather than an appreciation for what the law actually entails, creating a mess of laws that aren’t very useful. For example, on Dec. 12, 2017, the Senate unanimously passed a bill “to help Holocaust survivors and the families of victims obtain restitution or the return of Holocaust-era assets.”

In the midst of increasing crime, an opioid epidemic, starving Yemenis, decimated inner cities, rising white death rates, economic malaise, homelessness, and children with cancer, is the return of assets stolen 75 years ago in a foreign country really our most pressing issue?

No, but do you want to be the guy who voted against the Justice for Holocaust survivors bill? What are you, some kind of Nazi? Do you want to vote in favor of drunken alcoholics? Criminals? Sex offenders? Murderers? Racists? Satanic Daycares?

Social signaling inspires a bunch of loud, incoherent arguing, intended more to prove “I am a good person” or “I belong to Group X” than to hash out good policy. Indeed, social signaling is diametrically opposed to good policy, as you can always prove that you are an even better person or better member of Group X by trashing good policies on the grounds that they do not signal hard enough.

The Left likes to do a lot of social signaling about racism, most recently exemplified in the tearing down of Civil War Era statues. I’m pretty sure those statues weren’t out shooting black people or denying them jobs, but nonetheless it suddenly became an incredibly pressing problem that they existed, taking up a few feet of space, and had to be torn down. Just breathe the word “racist” and otherwise sensible people’s brains shut down and they become gibbering idiots.

The Right likes to social signal about sex, which it hates so much it can’t shut up about it. Unless people are getting married at 15, they’re going to have extra-marital sex. If you want to live in an economy where people have to attend school into their mid-twenties in order to learn everything, then you either need to structure things so that people can get married and have kids while they are still in school or they will just have extra-marital sex while still in school.

Right and Left both like to signal about abortion, though my sense here is that the right is signaling harder.

The Right and Left both like to signal about Gun Control. Not five minutes after a mass shooting and you’ll have idiots on both sides Tweeting about how their favorite policy could have saved the day (or how the other guy’s policy wouldn’t have prevented it at all.) Now, I happen to favor more gun control (if you ignore the point of this entire post and write something mind-numbingly stupid in response to this I will ignore you,) but “more gun control” won’t solve the  problem of someone buying an already illegal gun and shooting people with it. If your first response to a shooting is “More gun control!” without first checking whether that would have actually prevented the shooting, you’re being an idiot. (By contrast, if you’re out there yelling “Gun control does nothing!” in a case where it could have saved lives, then you’re the one being an idiot.)

This doesn’t mean that people can’t have reasonable positions on these issues (even positions I disagree with.) But yelling “This is bad! I hate it very much!” makes it much harder to have a reasonable discussion about the best way to address the issues. If people can personally benefit by social signaling against every reasonable position, then they’ll be incentivised to do so–essentially defecting against good policy making.

So what can we do?

I previously discussed using anonymity to damp down signaling. It won’t stop people from yelling about their deeply held feelings, but it does remove the incentive to care about one’s reputation.

Simply being aware of the problem may help; acknowledge that people will signal and then try to recognize when you are doing it yourself.

In general, we can tell that people are merely signaling about an issue if they don’t take any active steps in their own personal lives to resolve it. A person who actually rides a bike to work because they want to fight global warming is serious; someone who merely talks a good talk while flying in a private jet is not.

“Anti-racists” who live in majority white neighborhoods “for the schools” are another example–they claim to love minorities but mysteriously do not live among them. Clearly someone else–maybe working class whites–should be forced to do it.

Signalers love force: force lets them show how SERIOUS they are about fighting the BAD ISSUE without doing anything themselves about it. The same is true for “anti-abortion” politicians, eg Kasich Signs Law Banning Abortions After Diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome. Of course Kasich will not be personally adopting or raising any babies with Down’s syndrome, nor giving money to their families to help with their medical bills. Kasich loves Down’s babies enough to force other people to raise them, but not enough to actually care for one himself.

Both sides engage in this kind of behavior, which looks like goodness on their own side but super hypocritical to the other.

The positions of anyone who will not (or cannot) put their money where their mouth is should be seen as suspect. If they want to force other people to do things they don’t or can’t, it automatically discredits them.

Communism, as in an entire country/economy run by force in order to achieve a vision of a “just society,” ranks as the highest expression of social signaling. Not only has communism failed miserably in every iterations, it has caused the deaths of an estimated 100 million people by starvation, purge, or direct bullets to the head. Yet communist ideology persists because of the strength of social signalling.

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16 thoughts on “The Social Signaling Problem

  1. No, but do you want to be the guy who voted against the Justice for Holocaust survivors bill
    ……
    I’d be that guy. Ain’t no sin of me or mine. Fact is my kin bleed all over Europe and part of that end result is ending the holocaust. One would think that would be enough

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  2. gun control is a form of prohibition. we already have thousands of laws about guns. entire classs of firearms are forbidden. what new classes should be forbidden? where does it end but in prohibition? it’s never been harder to get a gun legally. are we more crime free? are we safer? are we better?

    these same arguments apply to drugs. we prohibit entire classes of drugs. prohibition. how is that drug war going?

    we learned nothing from prohibition. we’ll learn nothing from the drug war. we’ll learn nothing from the gun war.

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  3. What can we do? Accept democracy for what it is, namely, a government design in which the wisdom of crowds is a load-bearing element. Since crowds are not in fact wise, and given to mob craziness including holiness signalling spirals, accepting democracy as it is means accepting the occasional screaming plunge into communism and/or world war.

    Or, get rid of democracy. This is the reactionary way.

    Indeed, it is also the progressive way, although in stealthy form only inasmuch as progs still fetishize “democracy”. But you may have noticed our government is surprisingly undemocratic, and especially so when Republicans are in the majority. The progs abhor “partisanship” (i.e, democracy) and instead believe in “public policy” (i.e., the rule of unelected experts), which they’ve largely achieved.

    P.S.: guns are used to deter a lot more crime than they are used to commit. Long ago I was a gun-grabber too, but after I read up on it, changed my tune. I suspect you will too.

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  4. “The Right likes to social signal about sex, which it hates so much it can’t shut up about it. Unless people are getting married at 15, they’re going to have extra-marital sex.”

    I didn’t, nor did my wife.

    “If you want to live in an economy where people have to attend school into their mid-twenties in order to learn everything, then you either need to structure things so that people can get married and have kids while they are still in school or they will just have extra-marital sex while still in school.”

    If only someone would get around to inventing reliable forms of birth control!

    I take your point that conservative attitudes to sex are confused and unrealistic, but actually the solutions are out there.

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  5. By “extramarital,” do you mean premarital? Extramarital sex usually refers to a married person having sex with someone other than his or her spouse (i.e. adultery).

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