Bryan Caplan  

Consciousness is All-Important: The Case of Signaling

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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.

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Steve Z writes:

It strikes me the phrase "consciously intended," in this context, is too vague (or ambiguous) to lead to fruitful discussion. It would have to be operationalized, in a way at least in principle testable, to have a productive discussion.

It's not clear to me, for example, you can meaningfully separate "conscious intent" from signaling, of one level or another. Indeed, what is ordinarily termed consciousness might just be an apparatus constructed for signaling purposes, with at most a slight impact on a person's actual utility function for a course of action (which remains unconscious).

One can also think of unconscious signals (say, a beautiful woman or dominant-seeming guy or victim signaling a need for aid), which could be costly if left to run unchecked, even if not accompanied by any affecting processing.

Nathan Smith writes:

"Desire for sex isn't just the proximate cause of sex; it is often the ultimate cause as well."

Hmm. While I know what you mean, that's not how I'd put it. The ULTIMATE cause of sex IS reproduction. Your selfish genes want you to reproduce, so they make you want sex. The proximate cause of sex is often or usually not reproduction, but desire for sexual pleasure, or expression of affection. There may also be a conscious desire to reproduce on the part of the sexual partners. But even if the sexual partners definitely DON'T want to reproduce, it's still the selfish genes' drive to reproduce that feeds them the desires that make them act the way they do.

David Friedman writes:

Is the assumption you are considering that people enjoy signaling or that people enjoy true signaling? It matters.

If I enjoy the signaling itself, then the signal can't be trusted since the cost of sending it is negative. What you need are signals that are more costly if they are false, less costly--or negative cost--if they are true.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

If they enjoy it, it's display.
If they don't enjoy it, it's signalling.

Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute and Cameron Hardwick and have some relevant comments.

Amy writes:


You are speaking of Aristotle's notion of telos - such as "the ultimate cause of an acorn is to grow into an oak tree". That idea is philosophically on shaky ground - what ends an action is "meant to" achieve is often a matter of interpretation, especially if the cause of it is not an intelligent agent. For instance, you might say that since humans are intelligent agents with actual goals physically represented inside our brain, and evolution just sorta acts like such an agent at some times but not others (e.g. the optic nerve, or the fact that it made us such that we invented and consume birth control pills), the humans' purpose for having sex is a better candidate for "final goal" than evolution's. On the other extreme, you could say that since all our bodies developed because of selection pressure to reproduce, the final goal of everything that pertains to the human body is reproduction. In general, I think that attributing final goals to evolution is too anthropomorphic and misleading.

Jay writes:

In evolutionary biology, it's generally understood that there are at least two layers of explanation for anything.

On one level we have the mechanistic explanation, which says that we have sex because hormones in our brains at a certain point in our lives trigger a strong desire to have sex.

There is also an adaptational level which says that people who want to have sex at the appropriate time in their lives outbreed people who don't, so we're all descended from the former.

There's no real conflict between the two.

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