Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Non-Hansonian View of Ulterior Motives

Robin Hanson blogs over at OvercomingBias, and his big idea is that a lot of behavior is explained by signaling. Everything from purchases (BMWs), rhetorical styles (aping the coalitions rather arbitrary protocols), to charity (giving to causes that project well upon you). I'm very sympathetic to this view, in that we like a particular wine not merely because it tastes good, but because of what it represents, and what our appreciation of it represents.

So, I like the signalling story because it seems we are status-hungry, and always be trying to climb the social hierarchy via such signals. Now comes Yale psychologist Paul Bloom with a new book How Pleasure Works, and he argues that much of our behavior and preferences come from an essentialism, as when we prefer art by Vermeer over a replica that otherwise looks exactly like a Vermeer.

Hanson emphasizes the signaling, whereas in this book, Bloom argues our pleasure is affected by what the person thinks is the true essence of the thing in question, and why prefer certain essential things. We like things that connect to our past, and to things that we think have some attractive, transcendent, property.

Bloom gives the example of faces, where people like objective things like symmetry and skin smoothness, but mainly whose face it is. People we know or like, have more attractive faces than other objectively similar faces.

It's an interesting argument. I think there's something to the idea that we choose things because we want to connect ourselves--our being, which includes what we have been--with things bigger than ourselves that are beautiful, true, or powerful. Thus, someone paid $750k for John F Kennedy's golf clubs, because it gets him closer to this famous great man. Or, kids prefer their teddy bear, not an identical substitute, because of a shared history. The implication is that context matters a lot, so things--ideas, objects--are never evaluated on a stand-alone basis. If true, it highlights that nothing is objective, because the context for everyone will be slightly different.

1 comment:

Dave said...

"Thus, someone paid $750k for John F Kennedy's golf clubs, because it gets him closer to this famous great man."

Right, like J. Peterman in that Seinfeld episode.