What we signal when we speak: Verbal tee-ups, honesty, and tact

In “Why Verbal Tee-Ups Like ‘To Be Honest’ Often Signal Insincerity: James W. Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, Austin, says these phrases are a form of dishonesty,” Elizabeth Bernstein ends with a quote: “You are more likely to seem like someone who is perfectly honest when you are no longer commenting on it.”

That’s probably true in some situations, but verbal tee-ups are (often) a decorous way of saying, “I’m going to say something you don’t want to hear” or “I’m potentially going to violate social convention by saying this.” They’re demonstrating social deftness by pre-empting feelings of the receiver saying or thinking, “This person is a jerk.”

In many cases qualifiers should be eliminated, but they exist for a reason and, as someone sometimes accused of being an asshole when I’m being honest (or trying to be), I’m aware of why verbal tee-ups are often deployed the way they’re deployed. Bernstein says, “for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say.” She’s right—the phrases are sometimes confusing. But sometimes they make it easier to hear what the speaker is saying. Bernstein does write:

Her advice is either to abort your speaking mission and think about whether what you wanted to say is something you should say, or to say what you want to say without using the phrase. “Eliminating it will automatically force you to find other more productive ways to be diplomatic,” Ms. Jovin says.

In general thinking about what you say, to the extent you can do so on the fly, is a good idea, but it’s also hard to do—which is probably why we get encouraged to do so so often. Qualifiers are a way of keeping your identity small while still speaking substantively. We could call the judicious use of verbal tee-ups “tact.”

The importance of signaling and Kickstarter: It’s not just the money

Movie star Zach Braff raised two million dollars on Kickstarter, and in the process a bunch of people on the Internet (and some who should know better) wrote critical commentary—this Reddit post is a decent summary of the slightly angry “Why is a rich celebrity seeking other people’s money?” point of view. Some people also used the Kickstarter to write reasonable, illuminating commentary, as Dan Lewis did in “Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer, and the New 90-9-1 Rule: The Indifferent, the Haters, and the Ones who Love You.

But, for the most part, one important and subtle factor about Kickstarter got lost: Kickstarter functions as an easy-to-use signaling mechanism. Lots of people on Internet forums and real life say, “I want to see Garden State II or Season 3 of popular TV show X” or whatever. But the cliché is true: talk is cheap, and lots of people will say lots of things when they have nothing at stake.

Kickstarter, however, lets people put their money where their mouths are: instead of saying, “I want to see or read X,” they can say, “I want to see or read X so bad that I’m willing to pay $10 to make it happen.” That $10 is much louder than 10,000 posts. The money is important in and of itself, yes, but it also demonstrates that your fans care enough to give the creator something valuable.

Although I didn’t especially care for Garden State when I saw it in college, I can see why it appeals. My favorite movies are definitely worth way more to me than the relatively small amount of money I paid to see them. (Or, as economists would say in their racy, lascivious language, my consumer surplus is high, while it was pretty low for a movie like Spring Breakers and outright negative for awful movies.) How much is a movie like Blade Runner or the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worth to me? I don’t know, but if the team behind a movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wanted to make another movie and tried Kickstarter, I’d give them some money (in Lewis’s term, I’m somewhere in the 9% of people interested but not super-fans; maybe I’m in the 12th to 15th percentile).

We’re still in the infancy of crowd-source funding, and it’s possible that we’ll see crowd-source funding morph towards being seen as an important signal too, and this blog post is a step in that direction.

College graduate earning and learning: more on student choice

There’s been a lot of talk among economists and others lately about declining wages for college graduates as a group (for example: Arnold Kling, Michael Mandel, and Tyler Cowen) and males in particular. Mandel says:

Real earnings for young male college grads are down 19% since their peak in 2000.
Real earnings for young female college grads are down 16% since their peak in 2003.

See the pretty graphs at the links. These accounts are interesting but don’t emphasize, or don’t emphasize as much as they should, student choice in college majors and how that affects earnings. In “Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation,” I said that colleges and universities are, to some extent, responding to student demand for easier classes and majors that probably end up imparting fewer skills and paying less. I’ve linked to this Payscale.com salary data chart before, and I’ll do it again; the majors at the top of the income scale are really, really hard and have brutal weed-out classes for freshmen and sophomores, while those at the bottom aren’t that tough.

It appears that students are, on average, opting for majors that don’t require all that much effort.

From what I’ve observed, even naive undergrads “know” somehow that engineering, finance, econ, and a couple other majors produce graduates that pay more, yet many end up majoring in simple business (notice the linked NYT article: “Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement [. . .]”), comm, and other fields not noted for their rigor. As such, I wonder how much of the earnings picture in your graph is about declining wages as such and how much of it is really about students choosing majors that don’t impart job skills of knowledge (cf Academically Adrift, etc.) but do leave plenty of time to hit the bars on Thursday night. Notice too what Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found in “The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data:” “Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2004 they were investing about 26 to 28 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based, and are not easily accounted for by compositional changes or framing effects.”

If students are studying less, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that their earnings decline when they graduate. I can imagine a system in which students are told that “college” is the key to financial, economic, and social success, so they go to “college” but don’t want to study very hard or learn much. They want beer and circus. So they choose majors in which they don’t have to. Schools, in the meantime, like the tuition dollars such students bring—especially when freshmen and sophomores are often crammed in 300 – 1,000-person lecture halls that are extraordinarily cheap to operate because students are charged the same amount per credit hour for a class of 1,000 as they are for a seminar of 10. Some disciplines increasingly weaken their offerings in response to student demand.

Business appears to be one of those majors. It’s in the broad middle of Payscale.com’s salary data, which is interesting given how business majors presumably go into their discipline in part hoping to make money—but notice too just how many generic business majors there are. The New York Times article says “The family of majors under the business umbrella — including finance, accounting, marketing, management and “general business” — accounts for just over 20 percent [. . .] of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States, making it the most popular field of study.” That’s close to what Louis Menand reports in The Marketplace of Ideas: “The biggest undergraduate major by far in the United States is business. Twenty-two percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded in that field. Ten percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded in education.” If all these business majors graduate without any job skills, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised at their inability to command high wages when they graduate.

I’d like to know: has the composition of majors changed over the years Mandel documents? If so, from what to what? Menand has some coarse data:

There are almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees conferred every year in social work as there are in all foreign languages and literatures combined. Only 4 percent of college graduates major in English. Just 2 percent major in history. In fact, the proportion of undergraduate degrees awarded annually in the liberal arts and sciences has been declining for a hundred years, apart from a brief rise between 1955 and 1970, which was a period of rapidly increasing enrollments and national economic growth. Except for those fifteen unusual years, the more American higher education has expanded, the more the liberal arts sector has shrunk in proportion to the whole.

But he’s not trying to answer questions about wages. Note too that my question about composition is a genuine one: I have no idea of what the answer is.

One other major point: if Bryan Caplan is right about college being about signaling, then there might also be a larger composition issue than the one I’ve already raised: people who aren’t skilled learners and who don’t have the willingness or capacity to succeed after college may be increasingly attending college. In that case, the signal of a college degree isn’t as valuable because the people themselves going through college aren’t as good—they’re on the margins, and the improvement to their skillset is limited. Furthermore, colleges universities aren’t doing all that much to improve that skillset—see again Academically Adrift.

I don’t know what, if anything, can be done to improve this dynamic. Information problems about which college major pay the most don’t seem to be a major issue, at least anecdotally; students know that comm degrees are easy and other, more lucrative degrees are hard. There may be Zimbardo / Boyd-style time preference issues going on, where students want to consume present pleasure in the form of parties and “hanging out” now at the expense of earnings later, and universities are abetting this in the form of easy majors.

This is the part where I’m supposed to posit how the issues described above might be improved. I don’t have top-down, pragmatic solutions to this problem—nor do I see strong incentives on the part of any major actors to solve it. Actually, I don’t see any solutions, whether top-down or bottom-up, because I don’t think the information asymmetry is all that great and consumption preferences mean that, even with better information, students might still choose comm and generic business.

Mandel ends his post by saying, “Finally, if we were going to design some economic policies to help young college grads, what would they be?” The answer might be something like, “make university disciplines harder, so students have to learn something by the end,” but I don’t see that happening. That he asks the question indicates to me he doesn’t have an answer either. If there were one, we wouldn’t have a set of interrelated problems regarding education, earnings, globalization, and economics, which aren’t easy to disentangle.

Although I don’t have solutions, I will say this post is a call to pay more attention to how student choices and preferences affect education and earnings discussions.

EDIT: See also College has been oversold, and pay special attention to the data on arts versus science majors. I say this as someone who majored in English and now is in grad school in the same subject, but by anecdotal observation I would guess about 75% of people in humanities grad schools are pointlessly delaying real life.

What people want and what they are: religious edition

Shankar Vedantam’s “Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?” dovetails with my theory of why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: a lot of it is actually about signaling values:

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They’ll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

And if you ask Americans about their sexual habits, you also find that straight women consistently report fewer partners than men; the most fascinating study on this subject, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” finds that women who believe their answers about sexual histories will be observed report the fewest partners, while those who believe they are hooked up a lie-detector (which actually does nothing) report the most—a number that puts them on par with the men in the study. The men’s answers do not change much. In both the case of religion and sexuality, “questions of identity” may be at stake. In the case of religion, as I note above, I suspect that religion becomes closer to a political question for many people, and political questions often aren’t really about the costs or benefits or desirability of the policy at hand. They’re about what the person espousing an opinion believes about themselves.

Or, as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Richard Feynman noted this tendency in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. A princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies: “On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”

That was the end of his discussion with the princess. But I think Feynman is on to something, and that something has to do with how people use political issues as means to show their values. Since very few people will change their fundamental values over a short period of time (if they ever will), arguing with most people about Republicans and Democrats (or whatever) is usually not about policy, but about belief.

Since picking up on this idea, I’ve become far less interested in political arguments, which are often cover for values arguments, and it’s very hard to change people’s fundamental values. Unless people acknowledge that political and religious debates are often about values, instead of the surface phenomena being discussed, you won’t get good conversation. This is probably one reason why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: no one will even acknowledge what it’s actually about!

And maybe Americans adopted religious status, as Vedantam has it, because we don’t have as many inborn status markers, as Andrew Potter notes in The Authenticity Hoax:

When most people think of status, they think of the rigid class structures of old Europe. In contrast, North America is considered to be a relatively classless society. Sure, we have various forms of inequality, income being the most obvious and socially pernicious, but we have no entrenched class structure, no aristocracy that enjoys its privileges explicitly by virtue of birth, not merit. Nevertheless, urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on the face of the Earth. The reason we don’t recognized this fact is that most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not, depending on the status markers that are in play) be able to move either up or down.

Now, in contrast, Potter sees that hierarchy as “obsolete,” since we now focus more on being “cool” or alternative, not driven solely by money, and known more for what we like than what we have. Forms of status change, but status doesn’t. The “rigid class structures of old Europe” might not apply, but the somewhat rigid ideals of religion might still, even if we’re still shifting towards consumption and opinions as status markers. Religion often functions basically as an opinion—or an “identity.” And people will not readily alter their identity—except for me, of course, because my identity is built around being able to alter my identity.

I’m still not sure why people glom onto politics and religion to signal their identities, but I think Feynman is on the right track: we like things that are large and complex enough that only a very small number of experts can really afford to even understand the domain but that nonetheless lend themselves to sloganeering and the like.

Jane Austen, Emma, and what characters do

I’m rereading Jane Austen’s Emma and realized that when the characters in the novel debate the validity, respectability, or wisdom of the minor actions of other characters in the novel—which is essentially all that happens—they are really judging themselves and their own choices. For example, there’s a moment when Emma is considering Knightley’s observations about Elton’s real motives:

He had frightened her a little about Mr. Elton; but when she considered that Mr. Knightley could not have observed him as she had done, neither with the interest, nor (she must be allowed to tell herself, in spite of Mr. Knightley’s pretensions) with the skill of such an observer on such a question as herself, that he had spoken it hastily and in anger, she was able to believe, that he had rather said what he wished resentfully to be true, than what he knew any thing about.

When Emma says that Knightley “could not have observed him as she had done,” she’s really saying that she’s a more able observer than Knightley and that she doesn’t merely base things on what she “wished resentfully to be true.” This is proved wrong, of course, like many of her comments and ideas, and it shows that while she thinks she values seeing things clearly, given her “skill” as “such an observer,” she actually sees no more clearly than anyone else. The reader figures out that Emma is self-deceptive, while within the novel she is proclaiming that her own choice of Elton as a sexual partner for Harriet is an appropriate one.

Emma also tends not to have much meta-cognition—instead, we, the readers, act as her meta evaluator. For example, she moves briefly in this direction after Elton foolish declares her love, but she pulls back before it can come to fruition:

She had had many a hint from Mr. Knightley and some from her own heart, as to her deficiency—but none were equal to counteract the persuasion of its being very disagreeable,—a waste of time—tiresome women—and all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second-rate and third-rate of Highbury, who were calling on them for ever, and therefore she seldom went near [the Bates, who she considers inferiors].

Whatever hints Knightley drops Emma ignores through most of the novel—likewise the ones “from her own heart.” Her own choices must be right because they come from her, even when those choices spring from unarticulated values that don’t hold up to Knightley’s clarifying vision. Emma never interrogates what “the second rate and third rate” mean: that’s one of the frustrating parts about this novel and so many others. The characters lack the ability to explicitly question their own values, even as they express what values they hold by denigrating the values of other characters. This is part of the joke and the irony of the novel, of course, but I tend prefer characters with somewhat greater self-awareness.

But the pleasure of Emma is realizing that its characters lack much of the self-awareness we think they should have. They debate values when they should be debating their debate on values. That, instead, is left to the critics.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate — Diego Gambetta

Criminals use nicknames both to separate insiders from outsiders and to stymie potential investigations into their activities (which is itself a form of stonewalling outsiders). They use violence strategically rather than randomly, and prefer to send hard-to-fake signals about their badness and their inability to fit in any part of the larger world: hence the tendency toward showing incompetence at tasks other than criminality, as seen on The Sopranos, the tendency toward extreme tattoos, and the tendency toward group participation in criminal events. The last binds the participants together. You can see some of the same behavior in almost any group of people; for example, a group of teenagers might decide they’re poor math students, they like to wear black, and they prefer to smoke weed with one another, the last being necessary to ensure group culpability—”they try to force each other to participate and torment or ostracize those who refuse.”

This comes from Codes of the Underworld, a clever book that is actually about signaling, semiotics, and economics more than any other subjects, despite my introduction. Its conclusions feel obvious after reading, but I doubt I could’ve articulated them prior. It has an impressive range of detailed examples supporting its general observations.

For example, criminals are good at finding liminal spaces where criminality might be implied, but not completely; Gambetta cites drivers who would nominally “forget” cash when handing over their license to police:

A quick-witted and corrupt policeman could choose to pocket the banknote (or bargain for more); if not corrupt, he was unable to treat the display of the ostensibly “forgotten” banknote as sufficient evidence of attempted bribery.

Steven Pinker makes similar claims about linguistic issues in The Stuff of Thought, where he describes the verbal tango people in crimes, love affairs, and other situations undergo. In both crime and love affairs, very good reasons often exist for evading overt, blunt language: being caught by police in the former and being unambiguously rejected in the latter.

As the above issue regarding bribes perhaps shows, criminals are more rational than they’re often made out to be: “Far from being driven by a feudal or monarchic mentality, mafiosi display a surprisingly modern mind-set in managing their organization, at odds with much of the Italian nepotistic and corrupt style.” I like the sentence itself as well as the thought behind it: the sentence compacts a lot of material into a short space (“monarchic mentality,” “Italian nepotistic”), which alludes to allegedly common knowledge while also correcting that knowledge. Some parts are wonderfully academic in their obtuse cleverness, as when Gambetta says, “This sort of usage seems a jocular custom, a form of bantering, and it would be a stretch to attribute it to an instrumental motive.” In other words, friends sometimes greet each other affectionately and informally. But those moments are few, especially relative to the easy density in Codes of the Underworld and the fact that it also nearly functions “semiotics for dummies,” with a fair amount of the theory one might otherwise find in Umberto Eco or Roland Barthes. In short, it’s multidisciplinary and academic in the best sense of both words.

A blurb from Thomas Schelling on the back says that “[…] the book’s interpretations will carry well beyond the field of conventional crime.” He’s right, and one major strength is that, as with the best nonfiction books, Gambetta uses a particular field or example from a particular field (in this case, criminality) to comment simultaneously on a much larger issue (how people communicate and form social bonds) without straining too far to either side, which would destroy the whole.

(Here is Tyler Cowen’s take, or rather citation. I don’t know of any other interesting posts about the books.)

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