My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.


It's hard to think of anything that has more usefulness in my own life than understanding singalling. It is simple and explains so many weird things about how people act (although I suspect that it's all very intuitive for a lot of "normal" people).

Robin's X is not about Y blog post was a complete game changer.

Do high IQ people signal more according to Hanson? If so, according to that social science paper from a month or so ago that TC cited, which showed common people have more common sense than high-IQ people, you could argue signaling lacks common sense.

Bonus trivia: the peacock (Pavo cristatus) signals, and its escaped extinction, so signaling cannot be that bad?!

haha, you Ray are always signaling you’re smart and rich. I assume it served you well.

Humans are always signaling their reproductive fitness, men their strength, their wealth , their status , their trustworthiness, women that they’re nice to fuck, their youth , their beauty , their sweetness, their faithfulness, that they’ve good caretakers etc....

And yet Asian women never signal. Of course, I'm talking about while they are driving! Just ask Ray's hot wife who is half his age (perpetually so, which implies extreme time dilation, which is to say Ray likes chubby Schwarzschildesque women?)


Is this mic even on?!

@sine causa - you fell for my trap. The peacock (the male Pavo cristatus peafowl) is NOT signaling. Because he, like me, can back it up. It ain't bragging if you can back it up. The fact that biologists use the term 'signaling' is confusing to the way social scientists use it. Social scientists use it to mean, as you do, people who pretend to reap benefits (free-ride) on legitimate other people. But you can't fake a peacock's feathers, making it an obvious target for predators. And you can't fake what I say online, it's pretty much all true. Obviously I won't attempt to prove it to anonymous readers, you just have to take it or leave it. In this sense it's 'virtual signaling' such as what Taleb warned against, but so be it.

In short: 'signaling' the way biologists (and Ray) use it: genuine trademarked (®) good; 'signaling' the way social scientists (and N. Talib) use it: counterfeit trademarked goods.

Originally, I was a bit sceptical of the extant of Robin's claims for signalling, but have consistently raised them in value over time.

Signalling fits very well into political game theory, economics and evo pysch and explains a LOT of otherwise strange (indeed pathological) behaviour with little effort. It has all the markers for a good theory.

Haven't listened yet, but I'm sure it will be interesting.

“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

- Emerson

No spoons were reported missing from where we recorded our conversation. ;)

Aren't introverts mostly just timid people trying to avoid risk?

Stranger in a Strange Land. The son of a Southern Baptist minister studies the New Testament, right? No, he gets a degree in physics from Cal Tech and advanced degrees from both Chicago and Cal Tech (not in economics) and becomes an economist. What do he and his father talk about, St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians? String theory? One wonders if he studied physics as a form of rebellion against his father. How old is the universe? I suspect that Hanson has heterodox ideas because his father is a Baptist minister not in spite of it (that's meant as a compliment to his father and his father's calling). In any case, anyone who has studied at Cal Tech and Chicago has earned the right to express the view that education is mostly about signaling. And get this: his wife is a hospice social worker. Hanson's father taught him well.

I don't have a physics degree from Caltech, but otherwise: thanks for thinking highly of my dad.

Well, Cal Irvine - physics degrees are extremely difficult whether from Cal Tech or Irvine. I took a freshman physics course in college and knew engineering wasn't the career in my future. And you do have an MS in physics from, drum roll, Chicago. I assume you know that the right (and the alt-right) are using your thesis about "signaling" as a way to dis the left: according to the right, everything the left says or does is only "signaling". I appreciate that you don't differentiate by political preferences (everyone is signaling), but I wanted to make the point. Sometimes Cowen seems to accuse (if that's the right word) the left of signaling much more often that the right; indeed, I can't think of one instance when he called out the right for signaling. This is a bit too personal, but I wouldn't be surprised if your wife has been accused (if that's the right word) of signaling by her choice of careers. My larger problem with interpreting communication according to signaling is that it means words have no meaning in themselves. While I also appreciate that hidden meaning in text is a big part of what is the prevailing ideology at Mercatus, that too means words have no meaning in themselves. Should we communicate in grunts and groans, Emojis? That way we wouldn't waste time learning grammar, etc. This is not a criticism of your research, but simply an observation how it can be manipulated and misused. Keep up the great work. It's interesting and provocative.

Two issues I'd like to see more creative research are introvert vs. extrovert and multi-tasking. You touched a little on the former in your conversation. A friend, an introvert, once described the difference between an introvert and an extrovert: an introvert is drained of energy in a crowd while an extrovert is energized by a crowd. As for multi-tasking, I didn't know I couldn't multi-task until my ten year old godson's friend once told the carload of boys not to distract me because I can't multi-task. He was right, I can't! That's both a curse (I could never be a trial lawyer because there are too many distractions) and a blessing (I can focus like a laser). Are introverts focused and extroverts not? Or are the traits unrelated? And as to signaling, which is more likely to signal, the introvert or the extrovert, the single-tasker or the multi-tasker.

Having read Elephant in the Brain, I see it not as moralistic scorn but as a powerful weapon for use by cheating-detectors in the arms race of cheaters vs cheating-detectors. The cheaters are really going to have to up their game.

My understanding is that one of the stronger hypotheses for the cognitive explosion humans experienced is that it was due to a cheating-detecting arms race in the contest of sexual selection.
One of the most potent weapons for a "cheater", aka, misleading signaler, is being able to convincingly lie to yourself. If you can convince yourself (somewhat believably) why you are doing something, identifying signalling becomes harder and calling your bluff becomes significantly more expensive.

A worthwhile conversation elevated by the participants familiarity with each other.
Coming in with a prior negative opinion on "Em", the signalling "Elephant" work in contrast looks productive/constructive. However, the necessary postulates in identifying the modal/median carry a lot of pitfalls.
Also, the word "Straussian" is heavy with signal, but to a general audience just noise.

I enjoyed the intereview. It’s a good book by Hanson. Signaling is at the core of the human experience. It’s good to bring it front and center. It has a lot of explanatory power.

The Em stuff not so much. I think it’s endless speculation about a far future we know very little


I much prefer the Elephant book to the Em book. But the Em book is ingenious and interesting, just far out there. But as a speculative exercise it is interesting.

Now that I've listened to the conversation, I understand why Hanson has such an acute sense of signaling. He is, as he states, a nerd, and doesn't possess the social skills most others do, social skills that are mostly about signaling. I suppose he wants to expose the lie (signaling) that most others use and he is incapable of using. Hanson reminds me of Chauncey Gardiner. He mean that in an affectionate way.

You may not have intended to, but it looks like you are implying signalling is always lying. I see this a lot elsewhere, too. Can't signalling also be truthful? Isn't signalling mostly just advertising? One may be advertising truths or lies, but there seems to be good reason to signal a trait one has if it may not be easily noticed otherwise.

True enough. Here at MR, Straussian is a religion, the hidden meaning in text the real truth behind the plain meaning in the text. Straussian meaning, signaling, can't people just do, say, and write what they mean. I hate irony (when used as sarcasm). When Chauncey said he liked to watch, that's exactly what he meant.

Why don't you brush up on Straussian (or, if you prefer, Straussianism), rather than remaining ignorant about it?

"COWEN: If you had to name a few of the human activities that have the least amount to do with signaling, but nonetheless are voluntary, what would they be?

HANSON: I’d pick very simple things like scratching your butt."

Wow. I propose a new political party whose platform is oriented around farts, hiccups, and grunts. "Make sincerity great again!"

That party already exists. It's called the [whichever major party you most disagree with] party!

This podcast, excellent as usual, reminded me of the first time I heard a discussion between Cowen and Hanson on Blogging Heads TV in 2009 around the 10:00 then 13:00 mark:

1) Cowen: "What I find funny about your view is that you're skeptical of medical science, about almost anything except freezing your head - you think that's the one thing that works!"

2) Hanson: So is your skepticism related to metaphysics, the relationship to consciousness and physics? Or skepticism about current brain science?...

Cowen: "I just think it's really hard. ... it took us hours to set this [video/audio] up, and I couldn't even do it. And we're relatively smart people. So setting up a frozen heads blogging dialogue takes hours, and I'm supposed to think my head can be frozen and brought back with even a one in a million chance??


Banned yet again. Maybe, I should just go instead of throwing pearls before the swines.

"The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off."
I wouldn't say it is showing off as much as it is trying to always say, signal, gesture the right thing to fit into a specific social circle- that need for most (social nerds excluded) to be a member is fierce. The threat of being excluded from the group, shunned for even minor reprehensions is promptly alleviated by covering ones tracks, saying the right thing, enforcing the code.
That is why any social model must be based on what people do with their lives, and not simply what they say.

That was very good. The discussion of our lack of knowledge of where the middle of the distribution is, on many social/anthropoligical parameters (I think Robin H. was referring to 20 different parameters or so, I will have to read the book to find out) - well, it is something I had never thought about that way. So I will read the book to learn more about it.

I also liked the way numbers were tossed out in a confident conversational way - how much exactly of our charitable giving is meant to be effective (I basically agreed with that), an attempt at an exact ratio between how much time goes into reading classics and understanding them as opposed to how much time is spent passing those insights along (I may have disagreed on that part, for religious reasons - Proverbs teaches us that one of the great goods of life is to humbly listen to those who are wiser than us), the exact number of the specific numbered steps at which the great filter is likely to be most effectively operating (I disagree on that, too, but I could easily be wrong - I would think the great filter is just, written more largely, the fact that the unattractive get asked out on less dates, and the very unattractive sometimes never get asked out on dates at all - that is not what we would call the first step, I think. Or maybe I am thinking of the Fermi Paradox which is not the same thing as the great filter).

A meta-comment: these interviews are fascinating, the interviewees are happy to have someone who prepared so well for the interviews. In this particular interview, the second half really had a level of "flow" that is rarely observed, anywhere, on any platform. Thanks for working so hard on these, Tyler.

Now --- If you don't like completely candid observations about the world form someone who literally believes in the truths of the Bible, skip the following:
An observation about a line from the interviewee about humans being the most interesting creatures on earth, and where all the action is at - we do not know what is going on in the oceans, for all we know - and I am a conservative Christian, not some weird gnostic - for all we know this earth has more intelligent creatures on it than us. As Lisa Simpson used to say, how do we know that monkeys couldn't talk if they wanted to but they just don't talk because they know if they do we will put them to work? So I was not simpatico with Tyler's and his interviewee's assumption that humans are the most intelligent creatures on the planet. To understand my lack of simpatico-ness, it helps to be a well-educated Westerner with a belief in the literal statements of the Bible - for example, when was the last time you stopped to think that maybe the Fish in whose belly Jonah lived for 3 days knew exactly what it was doing, just like we know what we are doing when we foster an abandoned old dog before the nice people at the local dog orphanage find such dog a forever home with someone who lives in your town and whom you never met and who is happy and willing to adopt that poor old abandoned dog, and keep it for as long and as many years as it wants? (and it is no small thing to be a friend to a dog who never had a friend in the world). Can you tell me, that even today, science has ruled out the past existence of such a Fish? And don't get me started on angels - but, if you are interested, and if you have studied very large numbers for awhile - how many angels would it take to live in our world and to spend time with every living creature who ever lived and who ever felt what it is to be alive, and to, in their angelic way, have spoken heart to heart to such creatures, so that , at any time, all the way to any infinite horizon those of us who think of infinite horizons could imagine, and even beyond those horizons- so that, at any time, they (the angels) would be able to renew, for their old friends, the life they once knew?

If I said 10 to the fortysecond, would I be in the neighborhood? 10 to the old hundredth? Someday you will try to remember all the math you have learned as if you learned it in order to understand, and someday you may know the exact number, and you might think, it is not all that large a number, when you think about it that way .......Not all that large, when you think about it that way ........

insert how between like and completely, first line of second to last paragraph at 10:52, for the correct reading. (possibly worth the effort, possibly not. just like winning or losing at bridge, or, more exactly - maybe there is no point in knowing anything.)

Housman on Manilius, in the middle of the obscure third book, made a similar observation.

English is, in fact, my native language, but to give Housman his props - Latin was his second native language.

You aren't doing what you think you're doing, what you did is not what you did, and what was just done can be deconstructed and turned against agents and agencies quite easily, in this case as unconscious signaling. A fascinating book that I'll read as soon as I can. But I wonder whether the economists have more effectively become like postmodernists or psychoanalysts.

Robin Hanson says (taking just one example from among many possibilities): "The more that the audience that we were trying to impress knew which kinds of medicines were effective and which were not, the more we would pay attention to that and try to impress people with how much we care about them by getting them stuff that worked." This points to what is one of the most troubling aspects of ubiquitous signaling: the signals are so often ineffective for their ostensible purpose. A gesture that shows you care about someone else should produce at least a modicum of benefit for that person, but very many such gestures actually produce no such good. So it would be better if these were not performed--and they would not be if everyone recognized their ineffectiveness, for then they it would not be taken as showing caring. But, as Hanson is pointing out, to get better gestures we need a better audience, one with deeper insight into which medicines are effective and, in general, into the way the world works.

The other most troubling feature of ubiquitous signaling is that it only has the full positive effect *for the signaler* if he is not fully aware *that he is signaling*, for full awareness would deprive him of much of the satisfaction he derives from his action. A lot of our signaling looks hypocritical, but it is maximally effective for us only if we ourselves are at least partly taken in by our own (semi-conscious) hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is somewhat discreditable, but in my view self-deception is even worse.

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