Consciousness is All-Important: The Case of Signaling, by Bryan Caplan

November 27, 2017
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Robin Hanson has taught me a great deal about signaling, but we do have a fundamental disagreement on the topic.  His latest post cleanly captures it.  Robin’s intro:

Many people (including me) claim that we eat food and drink water
because without nutrition and fluids we would starve and dehydrate.
Imagine this response:

No, people eat food because they are
hungry, and drink water because they are thirsty. We don’t need abstract
concepts like nutrition and dehydration to explain something so
elemental as following our authentic feelings and desires.

Yes hunger and thirst are direct proximate causes of eating and
drinking. But we are often interested in finding more distal
explanations of such proximate causes. So almost no one objects to the
nutrition and dehydration explanations of eating and drinking.

However, one of the most common criticisms I get about signaling
explanations of human behavior is that we are instead just following
authentic feelings and desires.

The Hansonian heart of the matter:

I’m an economics professor, and the vast majority of economic papers
and books that offer explanations for human behaviors don’t bother to
distinguish if their explanations are mediated by conscious intentions
or not. (In fact, most papers on any topic don’t take a stance on most
possible distinctions related to their topic.) Economics are in fact
famously wary (too wary I’d say) of survey data, as they fear conscious
thoughts can mislead about economic behaviors.

Yet I’ve had even economics colleagues tell me that I should take
more care, when I point out possible signaling explanations, to say if I
am claiming that such signaling effects are consciously intended. But
why would it be more important to distinguish conscious intentions in
this context, compared to the rest of economics and social science?

I say the challenge in Robin’s final sentence is easily answered: Conscious intentions are all-important for the welfare analysis of signaling.  Standard signaling models assume that people dislike sending the signal.  It is this assumption that implies that signaling equilibria are highly inefficient – or even full-blown Prisoners’ Dilemmas.  If people enjoyed signaling, in contrast, signaling equilbria could easily be ideal.  What superficially appears to be a vast zero-sum game turns out to be fine because the players like playing the game

So why don’t economists clearly acknowledge the centrality of conscious desire when they apply signaling models to the real world?  Because we usually focus on cases where most people plainly don’t enjoy sending the signal.  When I wrote The Case Against Education, I definitely double-checked this fact; but I probably wouldn’t have even launched the project if I’d spent a lifetime inside classrooms packed with jubilant learners.

Deeper point: I say that hunger and thirst – not nutrition and hydration – often are the real reason why people eat and drink.  How can we know?  Give people a choice between, say, flavor and nutrition – and see which they choose.  Many will plainly stuff themselves with tasty food they know to be unhealthy.  The same goes, of course, for sex and reproduction.  While people occasionally have sex for reproduction, most take considerable effort to have sex without reproduction.  Desire for sex isn’t just the proximate cause of sex; it is often the ultimate cause as well.

On some level, I’m confident that Robin agrees with me.  As he correctly pointed out over today’s lunch, his new Elephant in the Brain points out numerous conflicts between what we say we like and what we actually choose to do.  What Robin still misses, though, is that (lack of) conscious desire is the magic ingredient that makes signaling worthy of our attention.  True, if people thoroughly enjoyed signaling, there could still be inefficiencies at the margin; just because you love a game doesn’t mean you love the last hour of play.  But it’s the mountain of inframarginal suffering that makes signaling a massive blight on our economy and society.

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