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David Pinsof on Social Paradoxes

David Pinsof (psychologist and one of the designers of Cards Against Humanity [Amazon UK]) has just popped into my list of People to Listen to on Podcasts. He writes:

Human behavior is often paradoxical. We show humility to prove we’re better than other people, we bravely defy social norms so that people will praise us, and we donate to charity anonymously to get credit for not caring about getting credit. Here, I argue that these and other social paradoxes have a common thread: they are all attempts to signal a trait while concealing the fact that one is signaling the trait. Such self-negating signals emerge from the interaction of two cognitive abilities: 1) cue-based inference, and 2) recursive mentalizing. If agents can model each other’s mental states, including their intentions to signal positive traits, then intentional signals of positive traits can, themselves, become cues of negative traits. The result is that status-seeking and virtue-signaling are forced to occur covertly, without becoming common knowledge among signalers or recipients. Social paradoxes also play a crucial role in enabling intergroup dominance by inhibiting common knowledge of the group’s dominance-seeking tactics, which would otherwise disrupt coordination by eliciting moral disapproval. The analysis of social paradoxes can explain a variety of puzzling aspects of human social life, including the cultural evolution of status symbols, the function of sacred values, and the nature of political belief systems.

Consider the following statements:

  1. We try to gain status by not caring about status (Feltovich & Harbough, 2002).
  2. We rebel against conformity in the exact same way as everyone else (Williams, 2022; Feltovich & Harbough, 2002).
  3. We show humility to prove we’re better than other people (Hoffman, Hilbe, & Nowak, 2018).
  4. We don’t care what people think, and we want them to think this (Sznycer et al., 2017).
  5. We donate to charity anonymously, to get credit for not caring about getting credit (Hoffman et al., 2018; De Freitas, DeScioli, Thomas, & Pinker, 2019).
  6. We bravely defy social norms so that people will praise us (Bellezza, Gino, & Keinan, 2014; Williams, 2022).
  7. We avoid being manipulative to get people to do what we want them to do (Powers & Altman, 2022; Pinker, Nowak, & Lee, 2008). 
  8. We compete to be less competitive than our rivals (Barclay, 2013; Benenson, 2013).
  9. We help those in need, regardless of self-interest, because being seen as the type of person who helps those in need, regardless of self-interest, is in our self-interest (Newman & Cain, 2014; De Freitas et al., 2019). 
  10. We make subversive art that only high-status people appreciate (Smaldino, Flamson, & McElreath, 2018).
  11. We make fun of ourselves for being uncool to prove we’re cool (Gkorezis, & Bellou, 2016).
  12. We self-righteously defend false beliefs to prove we care more about the truth than virtue-signaling (Marie & Petersen, 2022; Williams, 2022).  
  13. We help our friends without expecting anything in return, because we know they would do the same for us (Sznycer et al., 2019).
  14. We show everyone our true, authentic self—not who society wants us to be—because that is who society wants us to be (Beer, 2020). 

These are all examples of social paradoxes, defined as interpersonal signals that are designed to conceal, from both the signaler and the recipient, the fact that a signal is being transmitted. The virtue signaler does not believe they’re virtue signaling, and neither does the recipient who awards them virtue (if they did, they would not award them virtue; Newman & Cain, 2014). The “brave” norm-violator does not believe they’re seeking praise, and neither does the audience who praises them. The “authentic” person does not believe they are behaving exactly how society wants them to behave, and neither do the members of society (Beer, 2020). 

Once we see what the signalers and recipients fail to see—that genuine (and unflattering) signals are being transmitted—the paradoxes dissolve.

The subversive artist is, in fact, catering to the whims of artistic elites.

The rebellious nonconformist is, in fact, conforming the norms of a particular subculture.

The anonymous donor is, in fact, signaling her superior virtue to savvy observers who uncover her identity (Hoffman et al., 2018).

These desirable effects are not accidental: they are strategically sought out by the artist, the rebel, and the donor—often unconsciously. What’s puzzling is not that people possess cognitive systems designed to produce these social benefits: such systems would have been favored by natural selection (Kurzban & Aktipis, 2007; Barclay, 2013; Hoffman & Yoeli, 2022). Rather, what’s puzzling is that the attempt to produce these benefits is not explicitly acknowledged by either the signaler or the recipient—and is often vehemently denied by both…

David Pinsof – The Evolution of Social Paradoxes

It’s a fascinating start…

(Hat-tip: Marginal Revolution)

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...