Multidimensional signaling

post by KatjaGrace · 2017-10-16T07:00:00.176Z · score: 50 (19 votes) · LW · GW · 16 comments

What do you infer about a person who has ugly clothing? Probably that they have poor taste  (in clothes, or subcultures). But it could also be that they are too poor to improve their wardrobe. Or can’t be bothered.

What about someone with poor grades? The obvious inference is that they aren’t so capable at the subject, but it may again be that they can’t be bothered, or that they have more urgent things to do with their time.

And someone who makes clever jokes? Probably that they are smart and naturally funny,  but if they had more time or effort to spend on this, it probably helped.

For all kinds of traits that people might try to signal with their behavior, someone can send a better signal if they have more money or time or self-control. Even when the main signal being sent is not usually thought to be about any of those things.

The reason this interests me: if signals often divide the population into ‘better or richer’ vs. ‘worse or poorer’, I wonder if this would cause us to imagine that being rich is associated with being better, even if the two were entirely independent. (And similarly for wealth in other general-use resources, like self-control and time).

In a simple case, suppose there are just people with pretty clothes (who are both rich and have good taste) and people with ugly clothes (who either have bad taste, or lack resources or will). Then do observers come to think of ‘rich good taste’ type and a ‘poor bad taste’ type? Or do they pay more attention to the actual structure of the space, and know for instance that this doesn’t mean learning that someone really has bad taste actually means they are probably poorer.

New Doc 2017-10-15 (1)

Note that I’m not merely suggesting that a person with more wealth can send signals to look like they are better—that much is clear. I’m suggesting that at a population level, if the wealthier people can’t be distinguished from the better people on some axis, then observers may come to think that the two are associated in general, even if they are not at all.

If so, this would be important, because it would apply in a huge range of cases of signaling. So that the properties of poverty and weak-willedness and such would appear to us to be much worse than they really were.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Benquo · 2017-10-16T20:16:10.506Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems related somehow to the "diamond in the rough" intuition, that if you're a discerning gem specialist you can distinguish between a valuable uncut gem and a pebble, which gives you an advantage relative to the uninformed public who are better off waiting until a professional jeweler has polished and set the gem.

This is also related to the common statistical problem where e.g. pretty much everything we think is healthful may become more correlated with health as health enthusiasts follow the new official advice.

comment by Nadbor Drozd (nadbor-drozd) · 2017-10-17T23:20:00.875Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's called Berkson's paradox and it can be used to explain all kinds of real life observations like "why are all the handsome men I date such jerks" ( or why google discovered that being good at programming competitions negatively correlated with being good at the job.

comment by ESRogs · 2017-10-18T23:01:20.846Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

> It's called Berkson's paradox

Just want to note that this appears to be the *opposite* of the phenomenon that Katja was suggesting.

Katja: do people infer that taste and wealth go together?

Berkson's (according to Slate): people infer that handsomeness and niceness do not go together.

comment by KatjaGrace · 2017-10-19T06:06:53.440Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

>Katja: do people infer that taste and wealth go together?

My weak guess is yes, but not sure.

comment by ESRogs · 2018-03-26T00:55:38.750Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I meant to be paraphrasing you, not asking you a question :P

comment by ESRogs · 2017-10-18T23:06:26.065Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, can anyone explain the difference between Berkson's paradox and Simpson's paradox?

EDIT: The explanation here is helpful:

comment by TheMajor · 2017-10-24T09:49:30.571Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think Berkson's paradox is explained by Why the tails come apart, with the added comment that it seems that the explanation applies not just to the tails of the distribution but in fact to any selected band (although the effect is most extreme in the tails). Simpson's paradox is a paradox about ratio's and different sample sizes, showing that if you average fractions you get different results than if you add enumerators and denominators, whereas Berkson's paradox is selection bias (from the wikipedia page: conditioning on [A or B] anti-correlates A and B).

comment by Nadbor Drozd (nadbor-drozd) · 2017-10-21T20:22:46.649Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Haha! You're right, I spoke too soon. The graph Katja used is the exact same graph used to explain Berkson's paradox and the pattern match hit me so hard I couldn't resist commenting. Lesson learned: think about it for 5 minutes before commenting.

Katja's phenomenon (KP) is not an instance of Berkson's paradox (BP) but I can see how they would often go together. Imagine that you go down a street and pick up everyone who is particularly tastefully dressed. In this group rich people will be overrepresented simply because they more easily afford good clothes. You could naively conclude from this that wealth correlates with taste. This is KP.

THEN you administer some rigorous test of good taste to everyone in the group (whatever that means). And then you discover that now the rich people in you population are *under*performing relative to the poor. For the simple reason that in your population everyone is either rich or has good taste - all the poor ones have good tastes but not all of the rich do. From this you could naively conclude that wealth *negatively* correlates with taste. This is BP.

How would this work in real life? Maybe a casual observer is more likely to fall to KP and think rich <-> good taste while a fashion expert who works exclusively with well-dressed people will think the opposite?

comment by SilentCal · 2017-10-17T17:49:33.760Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interestingly, this is actually ameliorated by culture being cut along socioeconomic lines. So the people who try to wear a given style mostly have similar wealth, and therefore most of the variation in their stylistic quality is not caused by wealth variation.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2017-10-16T22:40:04.395Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Promoted to Featured. While this is a solid nugget-like post about signalling, I probably wouldn't have put this in Featured on the idea alone. However I really like it further as it's explanation is clear and example-driven, it has a helpful hand-drawn diagram, and it's no longer than it needs to be.

comment by ESRogs · 2017-10-18T23:03:21.033Z · score: 18 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

> it's no longer than it needs to be

Praise be to the mods for including this as an evaluation criterion.

comment by WSS · 2017-10-18T20:21:23.393Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a good tie in here is the idea that we all have various forms of capital: social capital (your relationships / tribe), personal capital (your skills), and financial capital (your money / property). The reason to frame these as capital is to prime the notion that these are all fungible goods that can be exchanged for one another, and that all lie on the same axis of giving the owner more options and greater leverage. On one level this is just describing the halo effect, but I think you could also use it as the explanation. If capital in one area can be turned into capital in other areas, then dressing well is an accurate signal of overall ability to assert oneself. (I think “power” is too loaded of a term, but probably the best to describe the single axis these all lie on.”)

comment by Kisil · 2017-10-17T16:20:53.548Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Flipping this around: this seems like yet another data point in favor of investing at least moderately in signalling. Heuristically, people won't distinguish your lack of caring-about-signalling from lack of ability-to-signal.

comment by Larks · 2017-10-17T00:08:55.941Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Presumably it would also lead us to think that having lots of free time, or being very concerned about [clothes/wit/grades] was better - but this does not seem to be obveously the case.

comment by Connor Flexman (connor-flexman) · 2017-10-19T00:16:22.149Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Luckily, it seems we also have some specific signals to tell us rich vs poor, specifically conditioned on taste. This might alleviate the effect significantly, though perhaps not fully.

The problem starts to look ill-posed if you look at all the factors, though. Of course better taste has to correlate some with actual wealth, as if it provides any value at all it will give those people better social connections, etc. This whole cluster of value-providing traits is in fact correlated—and specifically because they're correlated does this central dynamic exist, that wealth and taste (and any other value-providing trait) can both be traded in for a costly signal. So to postulate a world in which they don't correlate would be postulating a world in which this dynamic doesn't occur.

comment by KatjaGrace · 2017-10-19T06:03:56.315Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't follow why you think this dynamic exists because wealth and taste are correlated. I think the dynamic I am describing is independent of that, and caused by it being very hard to find a signal of taste say that you cannot buy with other resources at least somewhat. If in fact taste was anticorrelated with wealth in terms of underlying characteristics, a wealthy person could still buy other people's tasteful guidance for instance.