Sunday, 13 May 2018

Display motives

Humans are often hypocritical creatures, saying one thing and doing another. There seems to be terminology for discussing our actual motives. They are frequently called "hidden motives" or "revealed preferences". However there doesn't seem to be a standard term for the motives we use for virtue signalling- the ones that we pretend to have in order to appear wholesome in order to manipulate others into liking and trusting us.

To contrast with "hidden motives" I propose "display motives" to refer to the motives that we pretend are what drives us - for public relations purposes. The term emphasizes their signalling role. If you wanted to emphasize their role in promoting good behaviour, you might prefer something like "aspirational motives". However, I don't expect to be using that latter term too frequently.

For "revealed preferences", I think it should really be "hidden preferences" and "display preferences" - as we see with the "motives" terminology. However, since "revealed preferences" has become the more popular term, "sham preferences" seems like the most appropriate antonym. Your actions reveal your claimed motives to be a sham.


  1. Manipulating others so that we survive in preference to them is the main driver of the increase in human brain size. Putting that brainpower into science and public education is a product of much more rapid and recent cultural evolution. When they begin to fail, it's because something has gone wrong with the fragile culture, and the practitioners are only human. Lawyers and businessmen are still back in the stone age.

    1. That sounds like the "social brain" hypothesis - which would appear to apply fairly equally to chimps and bonobos. What it is missing is culture. Thus the "cultural brain" hypothesis - which I have written on fairly extensively. See: "Tim Tyler: The big brain as a meme nest" and "Big brains as meme nests".

  2. Underlying motives can be hidden or explicit, and those which are signalled can be sincere or disingenuous. The signal is screened and the motive imputed by the recipient. The underlying motive behind the signal will always be genuine (to the signaller), even if that is a deceptive motive to display false signals, with the intention that the recipient imputes the motive the signaller wants them to think, rather than their real motive.
    I think the principle definatly needs a standard term:
    perhaps "display motive" would be a better term for the specific motive behind sending the signal, whether genuine or window dressing.
    Ostensive or apparent motive, might be suited to that which the signaller wants the recipeint to impute, which may be inferred (correctly or incorrectly), or revealed, as a sham.