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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

except perhaps on Halloween

Who says economists aren't hilarious? From Akerlof and Kranton 2000:
Gender identity, as indicated earlier, could be formalized as follows. There is a set of categories C, ‘‘man’’ and ‘‘woman,’’ where men have higher social status than women. ... P associates to each category basic physical and other characteristics that constitute the ideal man or woman as well as specifies behavior in different situations according to gender. E.g., the ideal woman is female, thin, and should always wear a dress; the ideal man is male, muscular, and should never wear a dress, except perhaps on Halloween.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

the beginning of life

It's sort of strange that abortion debates focus on defining when human life begins.

What if humans laid eggs, which could be incubated and hatched even without the mother involved? If the anatomical development of babies inside eggs progressed the same way as it does in the womb, would we still pick 6 months as the cutoff point at which destroying the eggs became murder? I seriously doubt it. Adoption would be the obvious choice for unwanted eggs.

The choice of an arbitrary dividing line is a choice of a point to switch prioritizing one living creature's desires over another's. If allowing the baby to live did not require a huge sacrifice on the part of the mother, there would not be a reason to allow for its destruction in early developmental stages.

Is it the legal definition of murder that led to the widespread preoccupation of when an egg or fetus becomes a human? If so, that really feeds my skepticism of the modern practice of law as a lot of verbal contortionist game-playing, too easily divorced from the real issues.

Monday, May 14, 2012

image motivation for organ donation

Facebook hopes to increase organ donation registration by encouraging people to list their donation status on their profiles.

I love this story (of course). Image motivations are incredibly important for prosocial behavior. That much I'm sure of. So on the surface this seems like a fantastic idea.

But this also entails establishing a new norm of making your status public. If donation statuses were simply automatically public, I'm sure registration would be high. But if first publicity itself has to be established as a norm, I'm not so sure. Norm formation is a big fat mystery.

And that's especially true in this case. Big businesses that aren't well-loved aren't in a good position to form norms. (Maybe Google would have a better chance.) And facebook is so fragmented/gadget-driven now that anyone without a listed status will be dismissed as not using the list, not not having the status. And listing your status doesn't just signal your altruism, it signals something about your use/opinion of facebook. And, lying is easy (although the article is optimistic that your listed status might carry some weight on its own, if not legally, then with family who must make a decision on your behalf.)

Or maybe the nobleness of the goal will render moot facebook's role. I certainly hope that's the case. I'm just not so optimistic as the people saying it will be a historic event in organ donation.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

education conformity

Bryan Caplan laments that online education won't be able to take off quickly because getting an education online is a strong signal of non-conformity, whereas one of the primary purposes of a traditional college education is to signal conformity.

Fortunately, he's forgetting about a large-and-growing demographic for whom this does not apply. The former college graduates. People who made the wrong major choice in college (the philosophy majors, e.g.) or who want to change careers later in life (the admirably-proactive victims of outcourcing, e.g.) are great candidates for online education. They can put non-traditional degrees on their resum├ęs and, rather than signalling non-conformity, they signal a drive to keep learning and build real skills after the traditional conformist path has already been completed. Over time, whatever respect employers have for those credentials of those people will extend even to others who skip the initial traditional path.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

scientism or media hyperbole?

This is a good sentence despite the fact that I somewhat disagree:
"The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable."
If this accurately reflected the thought processes of scientists, I would agree that it was concerning. But, while it certainly (and understatedly!!) captures science journalism (including a lot of popular science books, some written by the scientists themselves, unfortunately...), I don't think very many serious scientists fall in that trap for more than a few occasional carried-away seconds.

(This is precisely why, in fact, I find it ridiculous that academic economists are blamed for the financial crisis... simple models of enormously complex systems that are nearly impossible to test rigorously are useful for understanding the world and important steps in the slow progress of science, but simplistic application of and appeal to those models in the real world of course isn't going to lead anywhere pretty, and surely no macroeconomist ever said otherwise.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

gay rights

This is a nice informative infographic of gay rights state by state.

- Oklahoma is at least beating out Utah, Mississippi, and Michigan. I'm surprised by the latter (maybe because Oklahoma is so terrible with women's reproductive rights and I conflate them in my mind.)

- "Hate crime legislation" shouldn't be lumped together with "gay rights" (regardless of your opinion of hate crime legislation generally; I have mixed feelings.) But it at least signals good intentions. ( all sorts of other well-intentioned but destructive government policy...)

- Living in Oakland+ sure gives you a skewed impression of the American public. Not even California as a whole is anywhere close to as liberal on the subject as the Bay Area. They've certainly succeeded in forming a bubble; I'm not sure how good of a thing that is.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I've been sort of fond of cockroaches since I saw them in Pasadena* for the first time, one second plastered inconspicuously against the concrete, the next second scurrying shockingly quickly on their tall stilt legs. Plus, anything that indestructible is just inherently cool. Maybe not as cool as octopuses, but still really cool.

Now it seems they are also surprisingly social and suffer from 'isolation syndromes' when cut off from one another. They seem to have a kind of cooperative group intelligence along the lines of ants.

Nature is crazy.

*Someone needs to make a slow-motion video of whatever variety lives in southern California. I can't find one, and it's really cool.

[Stolen from MR.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Occupy humor

On the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) today I saw a guy wearing a pin that said "We are ALL the 99%". This cracked me up so much I had to text it to my best friend in order to keep from laughing too obviously at what could only have been him.

She basically just said I was a nerd with a weird sense of humor rather than sharing in my mirth, but she made me a more accurate sign I could take to Occupy when I move three blocks from the Oakland protest headquarters in a couple weeks:

I'd say that's just about par for the useful-Occupy-signs course, yes?

Update: she suggests two more, perhaps even better: "We are all the 1%! With the possible exclusion of the 99%". And, "We are all the 100%!"