Search Episodes
Listen, Share, & Support
Listen to the latest episode
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe via RSS
Become a fan
Follow on Twitter

Support Us:

Please consider making a donation to help make this podcast possible. Any contribution, great or small, helps tremendously!

Subscribe to E-Mail Updates

Related Readings
  • Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life
    Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life
    by Massimo Pigliucci
  • Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
    Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
    by Massimo Pigliucci
  • Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science
    Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science
    by Massimo Pigliucci

RS135 - Robin Hanson on: "Most human behavior is signaling"

Release date: May 31, 2015

Robin HansonIn this episode, economist Robin Hanson explains the signaling theory of human behavior: That our motivations for our choices, about school, shopping, medical care, and so on, evolved primarily to shape other people's perceptions of us. In the process Robin and Julia discuss what makes a good theory: How to decide what you should (a priori) expect to see, and why simplicity is a virtue.

Robin Dale Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. He is known as an expert on idea futures and markets, and he was involved in the creation of the Foresight Exchange and DARPA's Future MAP project. he blogs at Overcomng Bias.

Robin's pick:  "The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature" 

NEW: Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (22)

Hey guys, if you want to discuss this episode (or others), check out our new subreddit at:

Hope to see you there!
June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRafael Oliveira
Massimo would have a field day with these evopsych just-so stories.

P.S. As I was googling "evopsych" to see how it's spelled, I came across "The rise of the evolutionary psychology douchebag" on io9, featuring Robin's pick, Geoffrey Miller, who once tweeted, "Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth"
June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
The meme images mentioned early in the podcast can be found here:
June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Hanson
Going to the doctor with a high fever and bad diarrhea is signalling what to whom now?
Are people supposed to go to Dr. Google to learn how medicine is useless instead of trusting their doctor?
I for one am interested in my doctor's track record. I wish I could interview the doctor for the position instead of the doctor "accepting patients." If people aren't interested in the surgeon's track record, maybe it's because they have no choice in the matter. They have one nearby in-network hospital, they need the surgery, they got a referral from their primary care physician, and reviewing track records wouldn't change anything anyway.

If paying more for healthcare doesn't make people healthier, why are the poor less healthy? Just because they smoke more and eat junk food and stuff?
June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan. Loving the Julia Era!
June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor
For the record, that line Michael mentions from the Beatles' Getting Better -- "I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" -- was a John Lennon line, much more than his "Can't get no worse" interjection. And it was no throwaway. Paul would never have written a line like that. Since John's first wife Cynthia passed away a few weeks ago, that line has been on my mind. Don't forget that John also echoed Elvis in his song Run for Your Life ("I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man"), but it was only in past twenty years that anyone BANNED Run for Your Life from airplay in the US.

Much more to this interview that this point, but I thought it worth mentioning.
June 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBennett Theissen
Robin wrote a response to this podcast over on his blog -- he's addressing one of my main sources of confusion/skepticism about the signaling hypothesis, which is basically "Why do we need this explanation in cases where we already have a priori reason to expect ignorance, or cognitive biases, etc. to be motivating behavior?"

Check it out:
June 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef
If you "signal" that you're a virtuous person even when nobody's watching, is that any different from just practicing virtue ethics? Like, asking yourself whether your actions would pass the smell test. Or voting by absentee ballot without bragging about it.
June 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Was this originally broadcast on April 1? Nonsense on stilts.
June 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteral
Very interesting stuff, but the story about medecine not being really helpful for health really confused me. At some point, Robin Hanson said he would need a full lecture to explain this very point. Well, then, I would have liked to have first this lecture about why medecine is not really helpful for health, and then this episode. Otherwise the signaling theory sounds really weird at face value. I'm open-minded about it, but felt like the episode was way too short...
June 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJMA
Robin didn't say that medicine wasn't helpful, he said that you can't explain healthcare costs and its special social status by utility alone. If you have diarrhea, by all means go to the doctor; however, given that medications on the margin are relatively cheap, diarrhea medication included, it can't fully explain our healthcare obsession.
June 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDj
Feeling really sick and fearing death doesn't account for why a person decides to see a doctor, but signalling does? Who's signalling what to whom?
June 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Human behavior is more than just randomness or mimicry? We are a social species? Wow - this revelation definitely needs a new buzz word and some memes.
June 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterks
I really enjoyed the talk but was also quite confused by Robin Hanson's assertion that medicine is essentially ineffective. I wish he would have elaborated more on that. I'm a physician and I know that many therapies are done without a strong base of evidence, but for many other therapies there is a strong evidenced based support. I take care of patients on dialysis or with a kidney transplant, and certainly those individuals would not be alive without these modern day interventions. I wonder if he was referring more to the realm of preventative medicine such as screening for high cholesterol, for colon cancer, prostate cancer, and so on. It may be less clear that some screening programs correlate with an improved life expectancy, but even here there are some that I suspect are valuable.
June 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRich Feldenberg
If anything, signalling might explain why people, especially men, might avoid going to the doctor because it makes them feel weak and vulnerable or they have embarrassing symptoms they don't want to discuss.
June 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Nice anti-signaling fifties suit, what does he try to say with that picture? To be attentive?
Great conversation, new thoughts, love it!
July 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGiga Gerard
Happy Diwali
October 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjessy flora
/r/RationallySpeaking is really cool!
April 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMrL
Avant que le chirurgien commence le processus d'élimination de la lésion de la peau, vous serez administré soit, la sédation intraveineuse locale ou anesthésie générale pour rendre la procédure aussi confortable que possible.
<a href="">chirurgien esthetique pas cher en tunisie</a> La taille de la lésion de la peau permettra de déterminer comment le chirurgien va aller sur le processus de retrait. Si la lésion de la peau est faible, le chirurgien enlève la lésion avec une excision. Après l'excision a été fait, le chirurgien va très probablement fermer le site avec des sutures.
May 30, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermakrem
Nous sommes le ' institut de beauté de la Belle Esthetique et dans notre centre , nous aimons donner la priorité au client, en aidant à résoudre les principales imperfections de la peau, en mettant nos personnel qualifié à sa disposition.
June 8, 2016 | Unregistered Commentersam
People do take actions to obtain social status, but they also take actions to gain resources and other advantages for themselves and their community.

Much of "education" does resemble a form of day care with the addition of social indoctrination.

Economic Analysis has its limits. Sick people consume much more medical care than healthy people, and have worse outcomes, not usually due to the ineffectiveness of the medical care, but due to the condition of the sick people in the first place. In fact, in the USA, we spend fully one third of all our healthcare expenditures on people who go on to die within less than a year. If a medical treatment works, it usually works fairly immediately, the patient gets better, and goes on with their life without needing the expense of further treatment. Therefore, just trying to correlate dollars spent on medical care to lifespan totally misses the true effectiveness of medical care.

Human women have more pain than other animals during childbirth in part due to the large size of the human brain and head relative to the rest of the human body.
December 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
is a lot of our behavior "Signaling"? probably yeah but to say most of it is I think is just a little too extreme. I think it's easy to just put forward a theory like this because of how prominent the Social Status identity is pushed on us throughout our lives. but Life is more elaborate than that and as simply just Individuals, we can and do act in ways for solely our own beneficial purpose and from the direction of our own personal unconsciousness.
January 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.