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. Complex cultures flourish and die quickly compared with the time scale of human morphological evolution, and they all seem to have happened recently while there has been no increase in skull size. Being able to slip back into peasant ways when your culture collapses helps preserve the line of descent. Big stocks of memes are related to the evolution of writing, not skull size. The evolution of big brains was an arms race between communicating individuals competing for survival in the stone age. Sexual selection was part of the process. Sweet talk gets males more mates. Recognising bullshit when they hear it helps females avoid philanderers.

      Chimps etc. never evolved the vocal musculature necessary for the complex vocalisation that goes together with brain evolution.

    3. Even the local, ephemeral, early stone-age cultures evolved because they brought people together. These would also have discouraged the violent internal competition that would otherwise destroy them. So even these very early cultures would be social environments where competition between individuals took on covert forms that would lead to bigger brains (rather than thicker skulls!).

      I am still open to the Spencerian argument that over the history of human existence, "cultured people" with bigger brains would get more of their genes into future generations than "uncultured" people with smaller brains, but I can see alternatives to it that would work strongly, and appeal less to vanity.

    4. I'm still having a debate with myself about culture and brain size. In today's America there is an arms race going on between powerful individuals and their culture which in the past protected ordinary people from them more than it does now. The plague of lawyers is a result of demand from powerful individuals who need them to get around laws that are impeding their quest for as much power (money) as possible. They also need Congressmen to pass laws that aid it, and judges to set precedents in their favour. But the powerful are divided into factions that want to subvert their culture in slightly different ways. Conflict between these usually accelerates decline. In general, an egalitarian phase may coincide with the strongest growth of a culture as it becomes more popular, followed by oligarchy and oligarchical conflict with its decline and demise. That kind of arms race might, if it recurred for a million years with the growth and eclipse of a thousand cultures, produce an increase brain size, especially when the successful end up with large haremes, or can afford to be married to succession of young, fertile women through a long life. The selfish gene seems to indicate that we are more likely to have inherited our large brains from deceiving scoundrels like Don Giovanni than sages like Socrates or Seneca. I happily admit to Schadenfreude from the distress that might cause individualists vain about their personal intellectual abilities.

  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.