it’s all about signaling, but of what exactly?

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 15, 2013

The first step in understanding human behavior is in realizing that X is not about Y, and is instead about signaling something else, Z. But what is Z?

Human behavior is complex, we should be fortunate that we seem to have a theory of signaling at all. With all the myriad human motivations, how can we ever hope to ever pin Z down? It is all just too complex.

Or is it? In my previous post on construal level theory, I proposed an alternative explanation for the empirical finding of the correlation between psychological distance and construal level, saying that far mode is a mental process meant to optimize for the affirmation of ideals and the telling of stories embodying these ideals, while near mode is for everything else. So it is in a sense true that human behavior is too complex for a theory. But that only applies in near mode. In near mode, proximate values are inextricably entwined with local constraints imposed by reality, so there’s no accounting for the behavior appropriate to such situations, and hence neither the mental operations required for such appropriate behavior.

In far mode though, one is less constrained by reality. Which allows you to wax lyrical about your ideals and all that jazz. For example, the ideal could be “help the poor”. In far mode, you will definitely give money to that street beggar. Hell you would even be Robin Hood and steal from the rich and give to the poor and end wealth inequality once and for all. But in actual practice, you could be late meeting up with a friend. You need to save some change for the bus fare. Or whatever mundanities your life throws at you.

Note this isn’t to say that ideals have no sway in near mode. Quite the contrary. It is in fact in near mode where such ideals are meant to have their effect. Given that you are not pressed for time and are not taking the bus, you might actually give the poor bugger some money. (Note that the constraints don’t have to be anti-moral either, just tradeoffs between various uninteresting (to a far mode mind that is) considerations.) In the absence of the ideal of helping the poor, you might not even bother donating the money. (But then again you might, coz there might be this girl you’re dating standing beside you you hope to impress with your altruism; you get I hope by now a sense of the vicissitudes of near mode operation).

But ideals are by their nature devoid of concrete information. Simple laws are effective laws. The complexity should be present not in the courtroom, but in the decision whether or not to break the law. But unfortunately, as with laws the same with ideals. One has to constantly argue for one’s adherence to them, while at the same time pragmatically breaking them because it would be silly not to.

Which is why we have this thing called a conscience. As a substitute for justifying our actions individually. Rather we have this thing in our brains which exhorts us to behave according to the norms we claim we adhere to. One’s outward affirmation of the ideals then serves as a signal for the integrity of one’s conscience. So now we argue norms in the abstract without reference to the concrete actions they are supposed to inspire. And the mechanism which enforces the norms in our behavior is our conscience. Hence I posit that far mode is basically this process which deals with signaling the integrity of one’s conscience, by telling and responding to stories (fictional) and narratives (non-fictional, e.g. the news) embodying the ideals we subscribe to.

So there you go. X is not Y, but about Z = signaling the integrity of one’s conscience. Hence far mode is about talk of ideals.

But wait, what of near mode?

Near mode is not even about about, baby. Near mode is a bunch of non-propositional heuristics and rules-of-thumb which tells you only what to do in various situations. There is no need for justification or explanation in near mode, only action. In other words, near mode is anything which is not talk about ideals. Anything else. This is why we can say stuff like “everything is about signaling” or “X is not about Y”. Because those cases where stuff isn’t about signaling isn’t even about about.


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  1. moral progress | sarkology said, on June 23, 2013 at 11:10 am

    […] dilemma. Which is to say you would be operating in far mode, taking things out of context, and trying to signal the integrity of your conscience for a present-day audience, as opposed to truly trying to empathize with the day to day moral […]

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