signaling and biases

Signaling and Biases

The appeal of a can of Red Bull does not lie in its materials. It did not become popular because it contains 80 milligrams caffeine plus some sugar and amino acids. It took off because the brand was associated with freefalling skydivers, cliff-dropping mountain bikers, weekend loonies launching homemade gliders off a pier and heavy-drinking partiers. Anyone willing to pay three dollars for the tiny can is able to purchase a status symbol associating themselves with these activities and send the message that they might just be on their way to jump out of an airplane on their way to a Hollywood party.

In the book Spent: Sex, Evolution and Human NatureGeoffrey Miller opens with a question:

“Faced with the unfathomable, we could start by asking some fresh questions. Here’s one: Why would the world’s most intelligent primate buy a Hummer H1 Alpha sport-utility vehicle for $139,771? It’s not a practical mode of transport. It seats only four, needs fifty-one feet in which to turn around, burns a gallon of gas every ten miles, dawdles from 0 to 60 mph in 13.5 seconds, and has poor reliability according to Consumer Reports.

Like a can of Red Bull, people purchase it as much for what they think it says about them as for what it actually is.

Signaling: What Kind of Dining Set Defines Me as a Person?

Further into the book, Miller elaborates on this phenomenon:

“The problem is not that marketing promotes materialism. Quite the opposite. It promotes a narcissistic pseudospiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance, and lifestyle, as a product’s mental associations become more important than its actual physical qualities. This is the whole point of advertising and branding – to create associations between a product and the aspirations of the consumer, so the product seems to be worth more to the consumer than its mere physical form would possibly warrant.”

The main character in the book Fight Club is discussing his growing disgust with his own involvement in this process when he says, “I flipped through catalogs and wondered: What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”

This use of brands as a means of self-definition and signaling extends beyond physical goods.

In the fitness world, people use the types of workouts they do, the name of the gym they attend, the style of eating they follow and the specific food they eat to define for themselves who they are and tell the rest of the world about it.

“I’m a kettlebell guy. I’m an Olympic lifter. I’m a Crossfitter. I’m a vegetarian. I eat paleo.” These reductionist statements, at least as much as they are descriptions of workouts or eating styles, serve as signaling mechanisms to tell other people how one defines oneself.

Omitting and Embellishing: Self-Serving Propaganda

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker writes about an experiment in social psychology:

“…Stillwell and Baumeister controlled the event by writing an ambiguous story in which one college roommate offers to help another with some coursework but reneges for a number of reasons, which leads the student to receive a low grade for the course, change his or her major, and switch to another university. The participants (students themselves) simply had to retell it as accurately as possible in the first person, half of them taking the perspective of the perpetrator and half the perspective of the victim. A third group was asked to retell the story in the third person; the details they provided or omitted serve as a baseline for ordinary distortions of human memory that are unaffected by self-serving biases. The psychologists coded the narratives for missing or embellished details that would make either the perpetrator or the victim look better.

The answer to the question, “Who should we believe?” turned out to be: neither. Compared to the benchmark of the story itself, and to the recall of the disinterested third person narrators, both victims and perpetrators distorted the story to the same extent but in opposite directions, each omitting or embellishing details in a way that made the actions of their character look more reasonable. Remarkably, nothing was at stake in the exercise. Not only had the participants not taken part in the events but they were not asked to sympathize with the character or to justify anyone’s behavior, just to read and remember the story from a first person perspective. That was all it took to recruit their cognitive processes to the cause of self-serving propaganda.”

From this we know that as soon as we associate ourselves with something we naturally fall into a trap of self-serving bias and will no longer evaluate it objectively. We tell ourselves and others that whatever is associated with us is better than anything it might be compared to and subconsciously deceive ourselves into thinking that this is true.

Arbitrary Group Selection: Boundary Loss and the Need for Dominance

Pinker elaborates on this:

“A part of an individual’s identity is melded with the identity of the group that he or she affiliates with. Each group occupies a slot in their minds that is very much like the slot occupied by an individual person, complete with beliefs, desires, and praiseworthy or blameworthy traits… These and other contributions to the group’s welfare are psychologically implemented by a partial loss of boundaries between the group and the self…

The dark side of our communal feelings is a desire for our own group to dominate another group, no matter how we feel about its members as individuals. In a set of famous experiments, the psychologists Henri Tajifel told participants that they belonged to one of two groups defined by some trivial difference, such as whether they preferred the paintings of Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky. He then gave them an opportunity to distribute money between a member of their group and a member of the other group; the members were identified only by number, and the participants had nothing to gain or lose from their choice. Not only did they allocate more money to their instant groupmates, but they preferred to penalize a member of the other group (for example, seven cents for a fellow Klee fan, one cent for a Kandinsky fan) than to benefit both individuals at the expense of the experimenter (nineteen cents for a fellow Klee fan, twenty-five cents for a Kandinsky fan)…”

Even when we are arbitrarily divided into different groups we will act in ways that favor our own group and even spite the other at no benefit to ourselves, and based on what we know from the previously mentioned study, we will then craft illusory reasons to justify doing so.

Self-Serving Bias: Confirmation Bias, Web 2.0 Filters and Naive Realism

In The Filter Bubble, Eli Parisier discusses an interesting human tendency for self deception called confirmation bias, which is the tendency to believe things that reinforce our existing views and disregard things which conflict with them.”Philosophers call this naive realism,” Parisier says, “and it is as seductive as it is dangerous. We tend to believe that we have full command of the facts and that the patterns we see in them are facts as well.”

Not only do we bias our own intake of outside information to match our pre-existing beliefs, Parisier’s book illustrates several disconcerting ways in which the internet mediums we rely on do the same thing for us. A surprising amount of information about you is archived by internet companies (The company Acxiom, for example, has information on 96 percent of American households with data point lists up to 1,500 items long) and is used to filter information based on your preferences.

This means that when you search something on Google what is returned and the ads displayed will not be the same as those displayed to your neighbor who has a different political affiliation, income level or hobby. Likewise, Facebook gradually learns which stories and items you are likely to click, share and spend time reading and preferentially displays similar items to you in the future; preventing you from seeing what may be new information or ideas. The disturbing part of it is that you’ll never really know how much you aren’t seeing. The most important books in your library are probably the ones you haven’t read yet, and in this case, they’re being taken off the shelves.

Putting It Together

We now know several interesting facts about human behavior:

– We purchase and associate ourselves with things not only for their actual utility, but because of the messages we want them to signal to others.

– These things can be material goods, groups such as professional sports teams or groups which we are actually involved in like political parties, gyms, people who really like Ipods, practices like veganism or activities like playing lacrosse. (Take a moment to recall all of the bumper stickers you saw on the way to work today)

– These things become a part of our identity and this happens remarkably easily.

– Once it does, we tend to tell ourselves that our groups and the things we associate with (like our Ipods, Red Bull and kettlebells) are chosen for their superiority to other comparable things. This bias prevents us from making truly objective comparisons between the things we attach ourselves to and we feel an unconscious need to promote our own groups and things while minimizing or ignoring others regardless of their actual value.

– This process perpetuates itself due to confirmation bias, Web 2.0 filter biases, and naive realism.

Ultimately, this process leads to arbitrary divisions, a disconcerting closed-mindedness and a stagnation of the flow of useful information.

False Dichotomies

A common culmination of these processes is a reaction called a false dichotomy in response to competing or new information, groups or objects.

A false dichotomy, as defined by Wikipedia, is logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the othermust be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones.

Zero sum means that there is a finite amount of value in a given exchange and that for one side of an equation to gain the other must lose an equal amount. It’s the opposite of a “win-win” situation in that in order for one to win, the other must lose. When new information is viewed in the context of a zero sum relationship with an established idea, any value attributed to the new idea is perceived as damaging to the current one.

The two terms are similar and almost interchangeable in many circumstances. Illogical zero-sum precepts tend to drive false dichotomies.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that once a product is associated with one’s identity in such a way the self-biasing cascade sets in and new information is kept outside of conscious awareness.

Take for example the common debate between whether one should use Olympic lifting or powerlifting (bench press, squat, deadlift) for athletes.

It’s almost always presented in a zero sum pretext as a false dichotomy, with either side citing examples of world class athletes who train using either method.

The reality is that both methods develop different capacities of similar movement patterns (with the exception of bench pressing) and that proficiency in one would not undermine the benefit derived from the other. In fact, they’re likely to be mutually beneficial when used appropriately in conjuction. Both methods will be ideal in certain situations, but not others. A truly knowledgeable person is capable of ascertaining how and when either would be most effectively applied and understands the nuances of both.

The Limitations of Exclusionary Either/Or Perspectives

The next time you hear people arguing over things like Olympic lifting versus powerlifting, paleo versus Precision Nutrition or aerobic conditioning versus HIT, break down the actual points being made.

You’ll often find it coming down to two sides with opposing self-serving biases, strongly attached to the brand image with which they’ve chosen to identify and using zero-sum driven false dichotomies to make the case that their sport, eating style or conditioning method is superior and that the merits of the other are barely mentionable.

When things are debated in this exclusionary either/or manner, both sides are restricting themselves to a myopic perspective and ultimately limiting their understanding of their chosen field.

In most cases both sides being discussed will have valuable and unique benefits. Understanding and benefitting from the positive qualities of one does not diminish from the value of another.

That Olympic lifting produces greater gains in rate of force development than powerlifting does not mean that one should never perform another squat to build maximal strength. The fact that properly performed intervals result in higher net fat loss and better glycolytic pathways than aerobic dominant training doesn’t mean that one should ignore the aerobic foundation necessary for mitochondrial density, left ventricular hypertrophy and recovery capacity.

In any of those examples, one must surrender the tendency to associate a particular method or group with one’s ego and sense of identity in order to best evaluate each one for their respective positive merits and understand how and when each should be implemented.

Only by doing so will we be truly capable of progressing, evolving and sharing useful information with those around us.

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