Motive Ambiguity

Central theme in: Immoral Mazes Sequence, but this generalizes.

When looking to succeed, pain is not the unit of effort, and money is a, if not the, unit of caring

One is not always looking to succeed.

Here is a common type of problem.

You are married, and want to take your spouse out to a romantic dinner. You can choose the place your spouse loves best, or the place you love best.

A middle manager is working their way up the corporate ladder, and must choose how to get the factory to improve its production of widgets.  A middle manager must choose how to improve widget production. He can choose a policy that improperly maintains the factory and likely eventually it poisons the water supply, or a policy that would prevent that but at additional cost.

A politician can choose between a bill that helps the general population, or a bill that helps their biggest campaign contributor.

A start-up founder can choose between building a quality product without technical debt, or creating a hockey stick graph that will appeal to investors.

You can choose to make a gift yourself. This would be expensive in terms of your time and be lower quality, but be more thoughtful and cheaper. Or you could buy one in the store, which would be higher quality and take less time, but feel generic and cost more money. 

You are cold. You can buy a cheap scarf, or a better but more expensive scarf. 

These are trade-offs. Sometimes one choice will be made, sometimes the other.

Now consider another type of problem.

You are married, and want to take your spouse out to a romantic dinner. You could choose a place you both love, or a place that only they love. You choose the place you don’t love, so they will know how much you love them. After all, you didn’t come here for the food.

A middle manager must choose how to improve widget production. He can choose a policy that improperly maintains the factory and likely eventually poisons the water supply, or a policy that would prevent that at no additional cost. He knows that when he is up for promotion, management will want to know the higher ups can count on him to make the quarterly numbers look good and not concern himself with long term issues or what consequences might fall on others. If he cared about not poisoning the water supply, he would not be a reliable political ally. Thus, he chooses the neglectful policy. 

A politician can choose between two messages that affirm their loyalty: Advocating a beneficial policy, or advocating a useless and wasteful policy. They choose useless, because the motive behind advocating a beneficial policy is ambiguous. Maybe they wanted people to benefit!

A start-up founder can choose between building a quality product without technical debt and creating a hockey stick graph with it, or building a superficially similar low-quality product with technical debt and using that. Both are equally likely to create the necessary graph, and both take about the same amount of effort, time and money. They choose the low-quality product, so the venture capitalists can appreciate their devotion to creating a hockey stick graph. 

You can choose between making a gift and buying a gift.  You choose to make a gift, because you are rich and buying something from a store would be meaningless. Or you are poor, so you buy something from a store, because a handmade gift wouldn’t show you care. 

Old joke: One Russian oligarch says, “Look at my scarf! I bought it for ten thousand rubles.” The other says, “That’s nothing, I bought the same scarf for twenty thousand rubles.” 

What these examples have in common is that there is a strictly better action and a strictly worse action, in terms of physical consequences. In each case, the protagonist chooses the worse action because it is worse.

This choice is made as a costly signal. In particular, to avoid motive ambiguity. 

If you choose something better over something worse, you will be suspected of doing so because it was better rather than worse. 

If you choose something worse over something better, not only do you show how little you care about making the world better, you show that you care more about people noticing and trusting this lack of caring. It shows your values and loyalties. 

In the first example, you care more about your spouse’s view of how much you care about their experience than you care about your own experience. 

In the second example, you care more about being seen as focused on your own success than you care about outcomes you won’t be responsible for.

In the third example, you care more about being seen as loyal than about improving the world by being helpful.

In the fourth example, you care about those making decisions over your fate believing that you will focus on the things they believe the next person deciding your fate will care about, so they can turn a profit. They don’t want you distracted by things like product quality. 

In the old joke, the oligarchs want to show they have money to burn, and that they care a lot about showing they have lots of money to burn. That they actively want to Get Got to show they don’t care. If someone thought the scarf was bought for mundane utility, that wouldn’t do at all. 

One highly effective way to get many people to spend money is to give them a choice to either spend the money, or be slightly socially awkward and admit that they care about not spending the money. Don’t ask what the wine costs, it would ruin the evening.

The warning of Out to Get You is insufficiently cynical. The motive is often not to get your resources, and is instead purely to make your life worse.

Conflict theorists are often insufficiently cynical. We hope the war is about whether to enrich the wealthy or help the people. Often the war is over whether to aim to destroy the wealthy, or aim to hurt the people.

In simulacra terms, these effects are strongest when one desires to be seen as motivated on level three, but these dynamics are potentially present to an important extent for motivations at all levels. Note also that one is not motivated by this dynamic to destroy something unless you might plausibly favor it. If and only if everybody knows you don’t care about poisoning the river, it is safe to not poison it. 

This generalizes to time, to pain, to every preference. Hence anything that wants your loyalty will do its best to ask you to sacrifice and destroy everything you hold dear, because you care about it, to demonstrate you care more about other things.

Worst of all, none of this assumes a zero-sum mentality. At all.

Such behavior doesn’t even need one.

If one has a true zero-sum mentality, as many do, or one maps all results onto a zero-sum social dynamic, all of this is overthinking. All becomes simple. Your loss is my gain, so I want to cause you as much loss as possible.

Pain need not be the unit of effort if it is the unit of scoring.

The world would be better if people treated more situations like the first set of problems, and less situations like the second set of problems. How to do that?

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16 Responses to Motive Ambiguity

  1. Anonymous says:

    This can easily be inverted. Signalling a willingness to poison signals that you don’t care about liability and public relations, both of which hurt the firm. Being willing to hurt the firm makes you a bad manager. At the end, game theory must still be grounded in reality. If you poison society’s rivers, you are more likely to become their enemy. Making enemies when it can be avoided is still a net-harm. Conversely, signalling loyalty only matters if you gain something from being loyal. Signalling loyalty to your donors may be good if you’re a politician who still wins election, but signalling disloyalty to your voters may lose you the election. And so on.

    • silveryswift says:

      “This can easily be inverted. Signalling a willingness to poison signals that you don’t care about liability and public relations, both of which hurt the firm. Being willing to hurt the firm makes you a bad manager.”

      Hurting the firm isn’t the criteria the hypothetical person is using to select their actions here. They care about signalling loyalty to the people directly above them in the corporate ladder.

      Being willing to hurt the firm in the long run to boost the quarterly numbers in the short term might actually make for a stronger signal depending on the maze level involved.

      Obviously there are situations were these kind of actions blow up in your face, but that just means you misjudged the types of signals people are looking for, it doesn’t mean there never is a reason to send a deliberately costly signal.

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree but being willing to hurt the firm, including in the long run, will definitely have an adverse effect on the careers of the people up in the corporate level, and they know that. I’m not saying there are never situations like this, but I’d be careful assuming it as a default interpretation, or even worse, guidance for rational choice.

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  3. cgln says:

    Fundamentally, this essay argues that costly signals are bad and we should get rid of them. As I was reading it, I felt that I agreed perfectly with you. But now that I reflect somewhat, would I actually get rid of all costly signals, if I could?

    People (and living creatures in general) tend to believe costly signals over cheap signals in order to avoid Getting Got. Often this is like buying an out-of-the-money call:

    You pay the price of the costly signal now, in order to get a relationship with the other person, and capitalize on returns from their future actions, maybe. A peacock spends calories to grow its tail, and maybe gets a mate out of it. You are also long volatility: when circumstances change rapidly, solid relationships grow in importance (compared to relationships built on cheap signals, c.f. the old adage about fair-weather friends).

    Peacocks have kept their tails because Getting Got by substandard mates has been worse than Getting Got by the upfront price of the tail. Is the same true for humans? Are a mediocre dinner, a poisoned river, a useless policy, technical debt, and an overpriced scarf all cheaper than the alternatives you would expose yourself to? Getting rid of a bad option, in the face of a better alternative, still doesn’t guarantee a better outcome.

    In a world where people think on the object level and don’t ask for costly signals, the Trickster can extract a costly rent. For most complex decisions, there is plenty of opportunity to scam people, and it is harder to avoid traps than to set them. So you require costly signals for nearly everything, since it lowers the amount of traps in general.

    …if there is a solution, it probably doesn’t revolve around getting *rid* of the costly signals, but rather around redirecting the cost to a better target. The river, specifically, doesn’t have to bear the burden of the middle manager’s signal. It can be some other arbitrary (and more sustainable) victim.

    How to accomplish this on a societal level? We’ve already seen a shift like this happen in our lifetimes, with many political causes (which I won’t name). People and institutions have been rather adept at applying themselves to arbitrary sacrifices. Perhaps ideally, the cost of a signal should be borne by the signalers themselves: you can impose arbitrary externalities on a river or a project, but only so much on yourself before it is suicide.

  4. Alsadius says:

    Seems like the easy way is to be in a social group that associates costly signals with stupidity, not caring. If the signal isn’t sending a positive message somehow, people will stop doing it.

    It doesn’t generalize all that well across society, because few actually want to live in that kind of a norm. But for those of us that do, the rationalist web is a pretty good place to be.

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