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 theĀ  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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The architecture of communication

I was thinking today about the Bay of Pigs fiasco–a classic example of “groupthink” in action. A bunch of guys supposedly hired for their ability to think through complex international scenarios somehow managed to use the biggest military in the world to plan an invasion that was overwhelmingly crushed within 3 days.

In retrospect,the Bay of Pigs Invasion looks like an idiotic idea; everyone should have realized this was going to be a colossal disaster. But ahead of time, everyone involved thought it was a great idea that would totally succeed, including a bunch of people who got killed during the invasion.

Groupthink happens when everyone starts advocating for the same bad ideas, either because they actually think they’re good ideas, or because individuals are afraid to speak up and say anything counter to the perceived group consensus.

There’s not much you can do abut dumb, but consensus we can fight.

The obvious first strategy is to just try to get people to think differently.

Some people are really agreeable people who are naturally inclined to go along with others and seek group harmony. These folks make great employees, but should not be the entirety of a decision-making body because they are terrible at rejecting bad ideas.

By contrast, some people are assholes who like to be difficult. While you might not want to look specifically for “assholes,” the inclusion of at least one person with a reputation for saying unpopular things in any decision-making group will ensure that after a disaster, there will be at least one person there to say, “I told you so.”

You may also be able to strategically use people with different backgrounds/training/experiences/etc. Different schools of thought often come up with vastly different explanations for how the world works, and so can bring different ideas to the table. By contrast, a group that is all communists or all libertarians is likely to miss something that is obvious to folks from other groups; a group that’s all ivy league grads or all farmers is likewise prone to miss something.

Be careful when mixing up your group; getting useless people into the mix just because they have some superficial trait that makes them seem different from others will not help. You want someone who actually brings a different and valuable perspective or ideas to the group, not someone who satisfies someone else’s political agenda about employment.

Alternatively, if you can’t change the group’s membership, you may be able to break down consensus by isolating people so that they can’t figure out what the others think. Structure the group so thatĀ  members can’t talk to each other in real life, or if that’s too inefficient, make everyone submit written reports on what they’re thinking before the talking begins. Having one member or part of the group that is geographically isolated–say, having some of your guys located in NY and some in Chicago–could also work.

But probably the easiest way to remove the urge to go along with bad ideas for the sake of group harmony is to remove the negative social repercussions for being an asshole.

Luckily for us, the technology for this already exists: anonymous internet messageboards. When people communicate anonymously, they are much more likely to say unpopular, assholish things like “your invasion plan is fucking delusional,” than they are in public, where they have to worry about being un-invited to Washington cocktail parties.

Anonymous is important. In fact, for truly good decision-making, you may have to go beyond anonymous to truly a-reputational posting with no recognizable names or handles.

The internet helpfully supplies us with communities with different degrees of anonymity. On Facebook, everyone uses their real names; Twitter has a mix of real names and anonymous handles where people still build up reputations; Reddit and blogs are pretty much all pseudonyms; 8Chan is totally anonymous with no names and no ability to build up a reputation.

Facebook is full of pretty messages about how you should Be Yourself! and support the latest good-feel political cause. Since approximately everyone on FB have friended their boss, grandmother, dentist, and everyone else they’ve ever met, (and even if you don’t, employers often look up prospective applicants’ FB profiles to see what they’ve been up to,) you can only post things on FB that won’t get you in trouble with your boss, grandmother, and pretty much everyone else you know.

I have often felt that Facebook is rather like a giant meta-brain, with every person an individual neuron sending messages out to everyone around them, and that so long as all of the neurons are messaging harmony, the brain is happy. But when one person is out of sync, sending out messages that don’t mesh with everyone else’s, it’s like having a rogue brain cell that’s firing at it’s own frequency, whenever it wants to, with the result that the meta-brain wants to purge the rogue cell before it causes epilepsy.

I know my position in the Facebook meta-brain, and it’s not a good one.

The Facebook architecture leads quickly to either saying nothing that could possibly offend anyone, (thus avoiding all forms of decision-making all together,) or competitive morality spirals in which everyone tries to prove that they are the best and most moral person in the room. (Which, again, does not necessarily lead to the best decision-making; being the guy who is most anti-communist does not mean you are the guy with the best ideas for how to overthrow Castro, for example.)

Twitter and bloggers are anonymous enough to say disagreeable things without worrying about it having major effects on their personal lives; they don’t have to worry about grandma bringing up their blog posts at Thanksgiving dinner, for example, unless they’ve told grandma about their blog. However, they may still worry about alienating their regular readers. For example, if you run a regular Feminist blog, but happen to think the latest scandal is nonsense and the person involved is making it all up, it’s probably not worth your while to bring it up and alienate your regular readers. If you’re the Wesleyan student paper, it’s a bad idea to run any articles even vaguely critical of #BlackLivesMatters.

Places like 8Chan run completely anonymously, eschewing even reputation. You have no idea if the person you’re talking to is the same guy you were talking to the other day, or even just a few seconds ago. Here, there are basically no negative repercussions for saying you think Ike’s invasion plan is made of horse feces. If you want to know all the reasons why your idea is dumb and you shouldn’t do it, 8Chan is probably the place to ask.

Any serious decision-making organization can set up its own totally anonymous internal messageboard that only members have access to, and then tell everyone that they’re not allowed to take real-life credit for things said on the board. Because once you’ve got anonymous, a-reputational, a-name communication, your next goal is to keep it that way. You have to make it clear–in the rules themselves–to everyone involved that the entire point of the anonymous, a-name messageboard is to prevent people from knowing whose ideas are whose, so that people can say things that disrupt group harmony without fear. Second, you have to make sure that no one tries to bypass the no reputations by just telling everyone who they are. You can do this by having strong rules against it, and/or by frequently claiming to be everyone else and stating in the rules that it is perfectly a-ok to pretend to be everyone else, precisely for this reason.

Obviously moderation is a fast route to groupthink; your small decision-making messageboard really shouldn’t need any moderation beyond the obvious, “don’t do anything illegal.”

The biggest reason you have to make this extra clear from the get-go is that anonymous, a-reputational boards seem to be anathema to certain personality types–just compare the number of women on Facebook with the number of women on Reddit–so any women in your decision-making group may strongly protest the system. (So may many of the men, for that matter.)

Personal experience suggests that men and women use communication for different ends. Men want to convey facts quickly and get everything done; women want to build relationships. Using real names and establishing reputations lets them do that. Being anonymous and anomized and unable to carry on a coherent conversation with another person from minute to minute makes this virtually impossible. Unfortunately, building relationships gets you right back to where we started, with people neglecting to say uncomfortable things in the interests of maintaining group harmony.

This basic architecture of communication also seems to have an actual effect on the kinds of moral and political memes that get expressed and thrive in each respective environment. As I mentioned above, Facebook slants strongly to the left; when people’s reputations are on the line, they want to look like good people, and they make themselves look like good people by professing deep concern for the welfare of others. As a result, reading Facebook is like jumping onto Cthulhu’s back as he flies through the Overton Window. By contrast, if you’ve ever wandered into /pol/, you know that 8Chan slants far to the right. If you’re going to post about your love of Nazis, you don’t want to do it in front of your boss, your grandma, and all of your friends and acquaintances. When you want to be self-interested, 8Chan is the place to go; without reputation, there’s no incentive to engage in holiness spirals.

I don’t know what such a system do to corporate or political decision making of the Bay of Pigs variety, but if your want your organization to look out for its own interests (this is generally accepted as the entire point of an organization,) then it may be useful to avoid pressures that encourage your organization to look out for other people’s interests at the expense of its own.