Thursday, May 31, 2012

destructive norms from costly signals

I think that costly signaling is an important driver of destructive norms. We want to achieve a certain social image, and the only way to do so credibly is to use costly signals, so we use them even if they are destructive. My standard example is of extravagant funerals in some African countries, in which families are driven into poverty after burying a family member.

Group identity markers work the same way. Akerlof and Kranton say:

[P]eople mutilate their own or their children’s bodies as an expression of identity. Tattooing, body-piercing (ear, nose, navel, etc.), hair conking, self-starvation, steroid abuse, plastic surgery, and male and female circumcision all yield physical markers of belonging to more or less explicit social categories and groups. In terms of our utility function, these practices transform an individual’s physical characteristics to match an ideal. The mutilation may occur because people believe it leads to pecuniary rewards and interactions such as marriage. But the tenacity and defense of these practices indicate the extent to which belonging relies on ritual, and people have internalized measures of beauty and virtue.
Nah. That's just the first part of the story. The tenacity and defense of these practices indicate the extent to which belonging relies on ritual, and that status signals attained through ritual must be costly to be credible. Costly signals in the arena of appearances translates to self-mutilation, expensive or rare clothing, and/or time consuming or difficult exercise habits.

No comments: