Sending Out a Signal

Pod Paper Scissors

Dec 3 2020 • 19 mins


We all send signals to other people to present ourselves in certain ways -- the clothes we wear, the drinks we order, the concert seats we book (in pre-COVID times). Animals do it too. Learn how game theory can help us understand how humans and animals communicate in this episode, the first of a two-part series about evolutionary game theory.

-----
OFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT

Liz: Okay, ready?

Both: Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Liz: Aww, scissors cuts paper.

Ben: Okay, okay, so you're up. I'm Ben Klemens.

Liz: I'm Liz Landau,

Ben: and this is Pod, Paper, Scissors.

[theme music]

Ben: Okay, go ahead Liz.

Liz: You know, when when I moved to DC, I noticed the drinks are pretty expensive here. Like you can pay $15 for a cocktail at a really nice place, even at the top of the W Hotel where they make those cool, custom presidential drinks. Like they can be $22.

Ben: Yeah, and you know, that the top of the W Hotel it's a really nice view. But yeah, you know, even at the speakeasy type places, those are black boxes, those are rooms with no view at all, and you're still paying $15 for a cocktail. And I think it might partly be, you know, that it's like, it's all hidden. And you have to know to go to yelp.com and type in "speakeasy" into the search bar in order to find it.

Liz: Oh, I thought they were just keeping me out.

Ben: Awww

Liz: And now I'll never even now because of COVID.

Ben: Yeah, so I mean, I've been to one or two, I've had a $15 cocktail or two. And, you know—

Liz: Well, did you think that they were actually better than that $5 gin and tonic you can get at happy hour at a dive bar.

Ben: Yeah, you know, I would say that they certainly put a little more effort into it. Maybe a lot more effort. But, you know, there'll be a couple of ingredients. They'll put the little like, the little like spiral of lime on top. Yeah, yeah, there's definitely more to it than, you know, at the bar where they just kind of like take that that spritzer thing. I don't know what's called because I've never worked in a bar.

[2:00]

Liz: Oh, like that hose?

Ben: Yeah, that thing and pouring some gin, you know, from the rail? Yeah, it's a bit of a—it's definitely something of a step up. But you know, in my opinion, I think it's mostly...game theory.

Liz: You know, speaking of cocktails, I was thinking about peacocks. Peacocks are these delightful birds with huge feathers for tails, especially in the males, they have these blue and green very decorative plumage, and there's no real practical purpose for it. It's really a matter of sexual selection. Have you heard of sexual selection, Ben?

Ben: [singing-ish] Oh, and when I got that feeling, I want sexual selectio—no, no, go ahead.

Liz: Yeah. So people are probably familiar with natural selection, this idea that certain traits evolve, because they're advantageous to a species. Well, there are certain traits, they're actually not advantageous in any practical way, but are advantageous to signal to the opposite sex that you are healthy and reproductively fit. That you are going to, if you're a male, give some quality semen.

Ben: Oh, so you mean, a signaling mechanism for the purpose of generating a separating equilibrium?  The problem is that there's cheap talk, everybody can say that they're, you know, they have high reproductive potential. Everyone can say that they're, you know, wealthy, or smart or anything. But the question is, how do you trust somebody who makes that claim? You need some means by which they can signal that you know, that they have,  you know, for the peacocks that they have this high reproductive potential?

[4:00]

Liz: Yeah, so male peacocks have this beautiful plumage to signal to females that they are healthy, and they are going to provide quality semen.

Ben: Oh, okay. So you mean it's a signal for the purpose of generating a separating equilibrium. I get your now.

Liz: But yeah, in the animal kingdom, we see lots of examples of really interesting decorative traits, ornamentation, if you will, that really serves no practical purpose for an animal, but it does attract mates. A famous example in the marine world is the fiddler crab. Actually, there are dozens of examples of fiddler crabs, but generally fiddler crabs are most famous for having a giant claw, just one claw that's basically bigger than the rest of their body. It's just this giant appendage that they wave for the mating season to attract females. And then the fiddler crab ladies see the giant claw, and they're like, "Oh, yeah, that's my sugar crabby daddy."

Ben: Oh, that's it. That's so sweet. That's lovely. And making that claw that, you know, in terms of calories in terms of, I don't know, however we measure the effort that a crab exerts. They're expensive, right? So if you're not an especially successful crab, you're not, you're just not going to be able to generate a claw like that. Or if you're a peacock, who's just sort of like, you know, living hand to beak, you're not going to be able to generate these, you know, this luscious, beautiful, beautiful plumage.

[6:00]

Liz: Yeah, especially in the crab situation, that extra big claw is a lot of weight. So you need a lot of calories to sort that way.

Ben: Yeah, so the key, the key to making this separate separating signal work is that it has to be relatively expensive. The $15 cocktail, it costs the same for everyone, you know, you walk in, they're gonna be like, "here's the menu, it says $15". Right. But for some people, $15 is a lot of money. And you know, for like a millionaire or whatever, they're gonna be like, Oh, yeah, that's nothing. You know, I make or lose out on the stock market in eight seconds.

Liz: Yeah, you know, and when you're going out on a date, and let's just for the moment, use traditional gender roles, sorry, if you're a lady, and your date is buying you a drink, and he's like, "ach, I can't believe they're charging $22 for this inventive cocktail with a cute name". Well, that's a bad sign. Because it means that $22 is a lot to them. But if they're like, "Oh, look at this fun drink. I don't care how much it costs". That's a signal that they're pretty loaded.

Ben: Yeah, let's so it sounds like that's a successful separation between two types.

Liz: Well, you know, another way that people signal is to show that they're smart. Back in my mom's day, she'd read Time and Newsweek each week, so that she would always have something to talk about. That's what they did back in the 60s and 70s. Now, who even knows what time it is? Or what's in the news this week?

Ben: I just don't want to think about it. Yeah, I'm talking about what what you've read. That can that's expensive to fake, right? Because you actually have to read the darn book, right?

[8:00]

Liz: Oh, come on, then. Like, I can. I haven't read Anna Karenina, but I know that it starts like, all families are happy that happy families aren't unhappy in the same way. Right.

Ben: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. That was that was only a little butchered. But that was great. But then, yeah, now, now I can ask you, so, what was the _second_ sentence about? And yeah, then it's hopeless, right. So, you know, you it's hard to fake it takes in this case, you don't need a lot of money, you know, to buy a copy of Anna Karenina, or download it from Project Gutenberg for free. But the effort that it takes to read it is, you know, not insignificant. So you know, you have a good signal that you can use to kind of distinguish, you know, people who are really willing to put in time in intellectual endeavors, and from, you know, the wannabes. And there are lots of other examples that come up where, you know, it may be it seems like, a lot of effort for nothing to an outsider. You know, why are you spending this much money on a cocktail that consists of ingredients that costs, you know, $2, but they're a signal that allows this separation. Hey, Liz, did you know that one of the lead musicians for The Arcade Fire has an album out with Deutsche Gramophon?

Liz: I did know that Ben. Because you told me that not long after I met you.

Ben: Oh, right, yeah, that was me signaling that I was such a fricking hipster that I would not only you know, listen to Arcade Fire, but that I would research Richard Reed Perry, and find out that he has this album.

Liz: That's pretty obscure, Ben.

Ben: It's entitled "Music for heart and breath" and it was pretty good—recommended. But Yeah, to an outsider, people who spend all that all that effort, you know, looking for bands you've never heard of, and so on, it seems like a lot of wasted effort. But it's a pretty strong signal within a community, that within the hipster community that you know, you've exerted effort to separate from, you know, the plebeians who don't know this stuff.

[10:23]

Liz: Wait, Ben, are you saying it's impossible to hipster alone?

Ben: Oh, that's a good question.

Liz: Sports fans are another community that signal a lot to each other. Whether it's by wearing their favorite team's hat or jersey, or be like "yeah, how 'bout those Eagles".

Ben: So, you know what? Okay, so I'm enough of a hipster to look up Richard Reed Reed Perry's album on Deutsche Grammophon. But I'm not enough of a hipster to pay $200 for front row seat to the Symphony, which I would say that that's another kind of story, right? So at the Symphony Hall, the front row seats, they can be, you know, literally 10 times as expensive as the seats in the back.  Right, like $200 to $20.

Liz: Yeah, because you can get a really nice view of the piano player's fingers, cello player's fingers, and the saxophone player's fingers.

Ben: Fingers if you're on the front row, and you know, the nose hairs of the sax player. Yeah, no, it's true. But if it's a well designed concert hall, which you know, like, increasingly, they all are, like, the sound is as good in the front as in the back. And especially if you've got opera glasses, so that you can see their fingers very well. So yeah, we can debate this, but but I would assert that this is another separating equilibrium. And, in fact, okay, we won't talk about price discrimination this time. But, you know, but vendors, they think hard about how they can get people to separate into people who are willing to spend a lot of money and people who aren't willing to spend a lot of money. This is price discrimination, first or second order price discrimination. That's a digression. But on the side of the, on the side of the consumers, yeah, sometimes you find people who are willing to throw away money, just like on a $14 cocktail, that you could have gotten for $7 somewhere else. They'll spend a lot more for seats to signal that there are one type versus another.

Liz: But I'm gonna have to disagree with your terminology of throwing money away. These are experiences and studies have shown that people value experiences over material possessions. That cocktail isn't merely the ingredients in the drink. It's the view that you have of the Washington Monument. It's that music that is playing. It's the view that you have of the fingers of the
musicians right in front of you—

[13:00]

Ben: And by the way, you keep talking about views, but a lot of these speakeasies, they're like, windowless, they're hidden behind something else. You can only find them by going to Yelp and typing speakeasy into the search box. So, just a little aside. Yeah, you're not paying for the view.

Liz: Okay, well, I'm not cool enough to know the password or to google the password [laughing] for these speakeasies. But in any case, I am cool enough to go to the rooftop of the W Hotel here in DC, and pay almost $20 for a cocktail named after Barack Obama. That's me, but but it's [laughing] gonna be something that I remember doing with friends, I don't consider it to be a waste of money. It's just something that guess you can signal to other people that you can afford this without grumbling about it. But it's not a total waste. It has a purpose. Just like with the peacocks' sexual signaling, you can use your money for sexual signaling, you can take a date to sit in the front row of Symphony Hall wherever you are, you can take your date for a nice cocktail on the rooftop of a nice hotel.  These are ways of signaling, but they are also ways of creating memories.

Ben: Okay, so there goes the premise of the show. [laughter] But I'm gonna stick with it. I'm gonna stick with it.

Ben: Although yeah, sometimes people spend money for, spend money on these things because they truly enjoy them. But yeah, sometimes they spend it in order to create a separation of types. And if you look at— now and then, you look at somebody, you look at a hipster wearing something weird, or he looked at a peacock, and you know, wearing gaudy feathers, or, you know, maybe you find out that somebody paid $250 for seats at the front row, the symphony instead of row, you know, GG, and you think, you know, why did this person do this? This is, you know, weird. And, you know, there's so many different diverse groups that you would want to signal that you're in, I like, I'm pretty sure if you introspect for a while, if you walk around for a day or two, you're gonna find something where you're like, "oh, man, I can't believe they do that". But often, the reason why they do that is to create a separation, where without the signal, there would not be a separation.

[16:00]

Liz: You know, while the fiddler crab is signaling with its ridiculously large claws, that it's gonna be a great mate. A lot of people, especially in LA, who are in the Hollywood world, they get little adjustments, or sometimes big adjustments to their face, including Botox injections, so that they can look more youthful, so that they can get more parts in TV, movies, etc. It's kind of sad that they feel they have to do that. That is a way in which people expend a lot of resources in order to appear attractive to certain people. Well Ben, I guess what I've learned today is that, just like in biology, where species have certain traits that cost a lot of resources to them, but are great for attracting mates. People will kind of engage in these behaviors in the human world, in our social world, whether to attract potential mates, impress dates, impress potential employers, get into certain social circles. We're all just flashing our Peacock feathers all over the place.

Ben: Indeed, yeah, without these signals, we'd have an equilibrium, we'd have a world where basically everybody is pooled together, and it's hard to tell one from the other. But with these arbitrary signals that don't necessarily have a lot of meaning by themselves, some parts of the group separate themselves from other parts of the group.

Liz: Next week, we're gonna bring in Kevin Zollman from Carnegie Mellon University, who's going to tell us why he thinks the peacock tail story might be a little more complicated.

Kevin:So that is, are there other ways that we can explain how honesty or at least something like honesty could have evolved, even in situations where people have an incentive to deceive one another.

Ben: So tune in next time on...

Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.

Ben: [singing-ish] And when I got that feeling I want sexual sec—

Liz: You know how you can really show somebody that [Ben: sexual, ooooh] you are a smart, intellectually curious person.  You just dropped the name of a podcast in your conversation like, "Oh, yeah, I just heard on radio lab this awesome story about color vision", or "I just heard this great thing about fiddler crabs on Pod, Paper, Scissors".