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Signaling: The Language Peacocks, Gazelles, and Humans All Speak

Signaling and countersignaling are hidden methods of communicating with each other.

We do it all the time as a way to “prove” we are who and what we claim to be.

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The Basics

We are constantly signaling. Every minute of the day, we send signals to others to convey that we are intelligent, successful, attractive, healthy, well-adjusted people with impeccable taste. We signal to our bosses, coworkers, partners, friends, family, strangers on the street—just about everyone. Usually, we can’t just tell people we have a particular positive quality. Talk is cheap and most people have no reason to believe us. We only rely on straightforward assertions when the stakes are low. Plus, there are few things less appealing than bragging. So instead of telling others who we are and how great we are, we use signals.

Signaling is the area where you live and the car you drive. It’s how you take your coffee and whether you drink alcohol or not. It’s the shoes you wear, the newspapers you read, how you spend your Friday nights. People aren’t slaves to signaling; we do have our own preferences. But we are constantly constrained by the impression we want to make. We make choices that signal what we wish to convey.

Signaling is the act of conveying information about ourselves to people in a way that is costly for us and therefore believable. Without the associated cost of sending a signal, we would not be able to trust the information being sent. For instance, if it’s easy to signal that we are amazing without actually being amazing, then the signal would be comparatively worthless and no one would pay attention to it. Thus, effective signals take up a lot of time and energy, but are essential as a means of communication because the information they convey is trustworthy.

Signaling is such a fundamental part of the way we function that failing to recognize it means we miss out on an additional layer of detail in the world. It explains many behaviors that might seem illogical—like why we pay so much for wedding rings, why open offices interfere with productivity, why the smartest people have the messiest handwriting, and why giving gifts is valuable even if it’s a waste of time and money.

By understanding signaling, we can get better at efficiently conveying the information we want others to pick up on. We can assess if what we’re signaling is really worth the effort. We can learn to better detect what other people are indicating to us—and if it’s genuine or just a show. In this post, we’ll look at the origins of signaling, how it works, some of the many ways we use it, and the situations in which it doesn’t work.

Examples of Signaling

“Today, depending on group norms and circumstances, status can be derived from factors as diverse as academic achievement, one’s skills as a sea turtle hunter, and even the ability to drink a lot of beer.” The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology

Let’s take a look at some of the common instances of signaling you might see in your everyday life.

Advertising is rife with signals. Most ads are not really about espousing the positive qualities of a product or service. They might not even mention those at all. Instead, ads signal the kind of people a product is intended for—sending the message that buying it will further help signal their identity. There’s a big difference between a chocolate bar commercial that shows a bunch of college students partying on the beach and one that shows a working parent relaxing once their kids are in bed. When we stand in a shop or browse a website deciding which shampoo or coffee to buy, those advertising signals influence our decisions. We’re drawn to the products that signal they’re for people like us, and in turn, will signal our identities.

Another theory posits that companies use expensive advertising to signal confidence in their product. Your local plumber isn’t going to buy a Superbowl ad because they (rightly) don’t believe their service can earn enough money to justify it. A company that spends millions on a campaign, however, clearly thinks their product is good enough for it to be worthwhile. When we watch a costly advertisement, we pick up on that confidence and assume we’re looking at a high-quality product. In Principles of Economics, Volume 1, Gregory Mankiw writes, “In the signaling theory of advertising, the advertisement itself contains no real information, but the firm signals the quality of its product to consumers by its willingness to spend money on advertising… An action is being taken not for its intrinsic benefits but because the willingness to take that action conveys private information to someone observing it.”

Sociologists sometimes refer to the broken windows theory, which states that the visible effects of low-level crime, if unchecked, will send a signal that worse crimes are acceptable. The classic example is a neighborhood where an empty building has a broken window. If no one repairs it, it signals that no one is keeping an eye on the state of the neighborhood. Vandals might then break a few more windows or graffiti the building. People might start squatting in it. Things escalate and before anyone knows it, the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. As an old saying goes, if you let a camel poke its nose into the tent, you’ll end up with the whole camel sleeping in there. Small acts of negligence are significant if they act as signals.

Diego Gambetta and Heather Hamil write in Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Customers’ Trustworthiness that professional taxi drivers learn to pick up on the myriad ways prospective customers signal that they are safe to pick up. We’ve all heard numerous times about the risks of getting into a stranger’s car. But it’s easy to forget that the danger goes both ways. Letting a stranger get into your car is also a tremendous risk. Even in the age of apps like Uber, drivers often have far less information about passengers than the passengers have about the driver. Traditional drivers who collect passengers from street corners or phone calls have even less background knowledge.

The ability to read signals, then, is truly a life or death matter for taxi drivers. Gambetta and Hamil write, “For example, savvy drivers pick up passengers only at well-lit corners, not in dark alleys and savvy passengers go to safe places if they want to be picked up.” Unsafe passengers can and do mimic this behavior, but it carries a higher risk of them being seen or caught on CCTV getting into a taxi. The authors go on to write that “when asked, drivers often say their assessment of customers’ trustworthiness is driven by ‘gut feelings’ or ‘a sixth sense.’ Our expectation is that a logic underlies these feelings and that it consists of several cognitive steps, including an intuitive application of signaling theory.” If your profession involves any direct interactions with customers, you probably have an intuitive awareness of the signals that indicate if you can trust them or not.

With people we are not close to or have not known for long, we usually signal a desire to get along by ignoring any flaws or shortcomings and being polite. The psychiatrist Scott Alexander points out that we often countersignal the strength of an established relationship by doing the opposite. With close friends or long-term partners, it is common for us to make friendly jokes about flaws, or liberally use insults. We know the other person well enough to do this in a way that usually won’t cause genuine offence. We don’t need to signal affection, because it’s already established. They have enough prior information about us.

Honest and Dishonest Signaling

“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” ― Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata

We use signals because they are costly and therefore more believable than straightforward information. But that doesn’t mean all signals are “true”—they can be categorized as honest or dishonest. An honest signal means the signaler possesses the trait they claim. A dishonest one means they don’t. If a signal is easy to fake, it degrades the value of the trait it advertises. A picture of someone in a fancy car used to signal wealth. Now that we’ve all heard of people hiring expensive cars for a photo op, it just looks sleazy without other signals indicating they own it.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to fake experience. For example, you could lie about having gone to medical school, but one day in the ER or surgery would reveal you as a fraud. If it were possible to be deceptive about your experience without anyone finding out, everyone would do it all the time. On the whole, signals that are easy to fake soon die out.

Countersignaling

“An effective use of countersignaling requires finesse. Most importantly, the countersignaller must already hold some independent air of mystique.” Tyler Cowen, Discover Your Inner Economist

A multibillionaire casually admits to eating at McDonald’s for breakfast every day. A powerful CEO shows up at the office in jeans and a hoodie. A middle-class mother sends her child to school in a pajama shirt with unbrushed hair. A New York Times bestselling author says, “Oh, I write books,” when asked what they do at a dinner party. A supermodel posts a candid picture without makeup or filters online.

These are all examples of countersignaling; the act of signaling something by not signaling that thing. A jeans-wearing CEO doesn’t need to show up in a suit. Their status is already assured and they don’t need to dress in a way that encourages employees to respect them. Well-off parents don’t need to do battle to get their kids to look smart at school because, unlike less wealthy parents, they are not as worried about being judged as incompetent. We countersignal when we can afford not to make the effort required to signal.

To give some more examples from The Art of Strategy by Avinash K. Dixit, the most educated people often have the messiest handwriting, and the smartest students are sometimes unwilling to raise their hands and answer questions in class. Those who are secure in their reputations feel little need to defend themselves against minor slights. The most talented people may have no need for formal credentials to impress employers.

This is not to say that countersignaling is inherently dishonest or deliberate. It is, in fact, honest signaling. A person who signals their intelligence by making no effort to signal their intelligence may indeed be humble and uninterested in making others feel inadequate. A very wealthy person may avoid showing their wealth for their own safety and to try to prevent other people from asking them for money. A sought-after consultant may try to be hard to contact because they already have more work than they can handle and don’t want to go through the hassle of turning down more. But generally, the term refers to an intentional lack of signaling. It can be hard to distinguish from genuine humility.

The essence of countersignaling is that those who do it feel no need to signal. The value of countersignaling is that it frees up time, energy and resources. Signaling correctly is an endless, exhausting process where one slip-up can undo previous efforts. Countersignaling is the easier option because it doesn’t involve an active effort. We are most likely to countersignal when a given trait is obvious to any observer. A person moving into an expensive area may not feel the need to signal wealth to their neighbors, because it’s clear from the fact they live there. As Rory Sutherland puts it, “…there is a very big psychological difference between doing something by choice and doing the same thing through necessity.” When we countersignal, we don’t feel insecure or embarrassed about it because we’re in control.

In Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen cautions readers to be wary of sharing your good news with too many people, especially ones you want to impress:

Paradoxically, reporting good news can make a person look bad. If we look anxious to reveal good news, our listeners assume that we don’t come by good news very often. Or perhaps our listeners believe we consider the good news a stroke of marvelous luck. Did Michael Jordan need to tell his friends every time he scored thirty points in a game?

If someone hears our good news through the grapevine, they’re far more likely to be impressed. Clearly we must have so much good news that we don’t even bother sharing it!

Information Asymmetry

“People who try to look smart by pointing out obvious exceptions actually signal the opposite.” Naval Ravikant

Signaling is necessary in situations of information asymmetry. One party in a transaction—and it may not be an economic one, simply any exchange of value—has more information than the other. Countersignaling is more appropriate when parties have symmetrical information.

Economist George Akerlof explored how a lack of honest signaling can sustain information asymmetry and damage a marketplace in his 1970 paper, The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. Akerlof described the used car market, where vehicles fall into two loose categories, peaches (quality cars that function as expected) and lemons (cars with hidden flaws). It is incredibly difficult for the average buyer to figure out which category a prospective purchase falls into. There are few reliably honest signals that a car is a peach, while a lemon may show dishonest signals. So, buyers assume the worst. The result is a market where all cars are lemons, because dealers cannot appropriately price peaches. Luckily, this has changed since Akerlof’s time. We now have access to far more symmetrical information, both about individual vehicles and dealerships. With proper signaling, the market is more efficient. If this hadn’t occurred, the used car market could have disappeared altogether.

When we want to prompt another party to signal information we don’t currently possess, we take actions known as screening. We may not directly ask for it, but we encourage them to signal to us. If you ask the seller of a used car to give you a warranty, you’re not outright asking if it’s a lemon. You know that if it is, they won’t agree to it and you shouldn’t buy it. If they agree, that’s a pretty useful signal of the quality. Gregory Mankiw describes this as “an action taken by an uninformed party to induce an informed party to reveal information.” In the same way that markets find ways to screen products to ensure efficiency, we figure out means of screening the signals we receive from other people. A bouncer might ask someone their star sign to figure out if an ID is genuine. If someone claims they went to the same school as us, we might ask if they remember a certain teacher. A landlord might ask a prospective tenant for a deposit and first month’s payment upfront to indicate their ability to pay on time.

Signaling is not a static process in any situation—it’s always evolving.

Signaling in Biology

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” ― John Steinbeck

The concept of signaling theory originated in biology. Animals constantly signal to other members of their species, such as prospective mates, and to other species, such as potential predators. This enables them to communicate a lot of information without using language in the sense we do. In particular, humans and many animals use signaling to attract mates, by indicating their genetic fitness.

The peacock’s tail has long been a source of confusion for biologists. Charles Darwin wrote that the very sight of a single feather left him nauseated. Why would any living being evolve such extravagant, unwieldy plumage? The colorful birds threw a wrench into the works of his theories. Eventually, Darwin realized that sexual selection has different requirements from more general natural selection. Animals don’t just need to survive; they also need to pass on their genes. This means they need ways of signaling their worthiness to members of the opposite sex that are costly enough to be meaningful. A peacock’s tail is exactly that. To survive with such unwieldy plumage, a bird must be strong, healthy and smart—a good mate. The grander its feathers, the more desirable it is. The same is true for many other seemingly illogical features animals possess. Biologist Amotz Zahavi christened this the handicap principle, based on the idea that animals signal through features that are not beneficial for their physical survival, just their genetic survival.

When gazelles and similar animals spot a predator creeping towards them, they don’t always display the flight behavior we might expect. Instead, they engage in a behavior known as “stotting”: they leap dramatically into the air, lifting all four feet at once in a display that uses up a lot of energy and does nothing to help the gazelle get away. It is believed that stotting may be a form of signaling to display to a predator that an animal is strong, healthy and not worth chasing. Pursuing a fast-moving gazelle requires a huge energy expenditure, so predators prefer to pick out elderly, and sick ones that move slower. Stotting sends the signal that a particular animal isn’t worth pursuing.

Some animals are brightly colored to attract mates. Other plants and animals use color for a purpose akin to that of stotting, warding off predators. Aposematism is the term for colors, markings, or other physical features that signal an animal is poisonous or otherwise dangerous if eaten. For example, coral snakes indicate their venom with bright bands of red and yellow or white on black which are easily spotted even from far away. Skunks and badgers have white stripes that serve as the opposite of camouflage and signal their efficient defense mechanisms. To be so visible and still survive, they must be capable of defending themselves. Other species may piggyback on this by mimicking features that signal defenses they don’t actually possess, saving themselves the effort of, for example, producing toxic venom. This is known as Batesian mimicry. If predators cannot tell the difference, they will leave potentially dangerous meals alone to be on the safe side. As with any effective form of signaling, brightly colored markings are costly to an animal—they make it harder for them to hide—which is why they are effective. As a general heuristic, the more conspicuous an organism is, the deadlier it is.

Conspicuous Consumption

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”  ― Thorstein Veblen

Conspicuous consumption is the practice of choosing to purchase goods and services for their capacity to signal wealth and thereby excite respect or envy in others, rather than for their practical value. Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen debuted the concept in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen noticed that the wealthiest people in society were eager to outright waste their money on useless purchases, purely for the status this would signal. Having the capacity to squander time and money was the ultimate signal of wealth during Veblen’s time, following the Industrial Revolution. The newly created leisure class suddenly had unprecedented wealth and opportunities for demonstrating it. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, conspicuous consumption was purely the domain of the very rich. Afterward, it was open to almost everyone and became a key part of the way we consume—with the need to signal becoming more important than utility in most of our purchases.

Key to conspicuous consumption is the Veblen good: an item that is coveted because it’s expensive. In a reversal of the traditional supply-demand curve, the higher the price, the greater the demand. Since high-quality items tend to be expensive, we often commit the logical fallacy of assuming all expensive items are of high quality. The value of Veblen goods is contingent on their efficacy as signals of wealth. Some Veblen goods are inherently scarce, which is the source of their value, even if they’re not objectively better than cheaper alternatives. Others aren’t scarce, just expensive.

Signaling in the Workplace

In Willing Slaves, Madeleine Bunting writes, “Many professionals in the public sector have come to the painful conclusion that they now have two tasks; to do their job and then to prove they’ve done it.” This is true in many workplaces in cultures that value overwork—people are incentivized to prioritize the appearance of hard work above all else. The result is deliberate efforts to signal productivity, no matter how counterproductive they prove to be for the company or the individual.

Open offices signal collaboration and productivity to investors or prospective hires. The sight of lots of people scuttling around in a bright, colorful space that hums with activity certainly signals positive qualities about a company. Never mind that it’s detrimental to nearly everyone, especially those on a maker schedule. Likewise, individuals in an office environment where they have no quiet space or privacy feel obligated to scurry around, without time to think, pause for lunch, or take a break. It’s all about looking busy, not about getting work done.

In so many offices being present is equated with working. The bigger and more chaotic the office, the more your actual productivity is obscured. Often, your only real solution to signaling your value is increasing your basic visibility. You may not be doing much—gossiping with colleagues, drinking endless cups of coffee, and taking long lunches—but you are physically present. You are signaling your desire to work and commitment to the company. Unfortunately, it would be better for you and your organization if you spent less time at the office, but with more of it being tangibly productive.

Meetings are another counterproductive signal. The assumption seems to be that the fuller your calendar is, the more important and valuable you are because everyone wants and needs to talk to you. In reality, however, meetings are often poorly run and their objectives are undefined. They are a waste of time, as they cut into the energy you have for learning, deliberate thinking, and actually producing something useful.

Conclusion

Signaling is a hidden dimension of the way we communicate. It crosses the barriers of language, culture, even species. We intuitively learn how to read the signals we encounter in our everyday lives. Being aware of signaling can help us better grasp the information we’re receiving and become more discerning about dishonest signaling or countersignaling. We also need to be aware of what we ourselves are signaling, not just what we’re saying. We can’t just expect to be believed. We need to consider our signals.

Illusion of Transparency: Your Poker Face is Better Than You Think

We tend to think that people can easily tell what we’re thinking and feeling. They can’t. Understanding the illusion of transparency bias can improve relationships, job performance, and more.

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“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When we experience strong emotions, we tend to think it’s obvious to other people, especially those who know us well. When we’re angry or tired or nervous or miserable, we may assume that anyone who looks at our face can spot it straight away.

That’s not true. Most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. The gap between our subjective experience and what other people pick up on is known as the illusion of transparency. It’s a fallacy that leads us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts.

For example, you arrive at the office exhausted after a night with too little sleep. You drift around all day, chugging espressos, feeling sluggish and unfocused. Everything you do seems to go wrong. At the end of the day, you sheepishly apologize to a coworker for being “useless all day.”

They look at you, slightly confused. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘You seemed fine to me.’ Clearly, they’re just being polite. There’s no way your many minor mistakes during the day could have escaped their notice. It must be extra apparent considering your coworkers all show up looking fresh as a daisy every single day.

Or imagine that you have to give a talk in front of a big crowd and you’re terrified. As you step on stage, your hands shake, your voice keeps catching in your throat, you’re sweating and flushed. Afterward, you chat to someone from the audience and remark: ‘So that’s what a slow-motion panic attack looks like.’

‘Well, you seemed like a confident speaker,’ they say. ‘You didn’t look nervous at all. I wish I could be as good at public speaking.’ Evidently, they were sitting at the back or they have bad eyesight. Your shaking hands and nervous pauses were far too apparent. Especially compared to the two wonderful speakers who came after you.

No one cares

“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think. They’re often far too absorbed in their own subjective experiences to pick up on subtle cues related to the feelings of others. If you’re annoyed at your partner, they’re probably too busy thinking about what they need to do at work tomorrow or what they’re planning to cook for dinner to scrutinize your facial expressions. They’re not deliberately ignoring you, they’re just thinking about other things. While you’re having a bad day at work, your coworkers are probably distracted by their own deadlines and personal problems. You could fall asleep sitting up and many of them wouldn’t even notice. And when you give a talk in front of people, most of them are worrying about the next time they have to do any public speaking or when they can get a coffee.

In your own subjective experience, you’re in the eye of the storm. But what other people have to go on are things like your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The clues these provide can be hard to read. Unless someone is trying their best to figure out what you’re thinking or feeling, they’re not going to be particularly focused on your body language. If you make even the slightest effort to conceal your inner state, you’re quite able to hide it altogether from everyone.

Our tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to us is a result of seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. If we’re feeling a strong emotion, we assume other people care about how we feel as much as we do. This egocentric bias leads to the spotlight effect—in social situations, we feel like there’s a spotlight shining on us. It’s not self-obsession, it’s natural. But overall, this internal self-focus is what makes you think other people can tell what you’re thinking.

Take the case of lying. Even if we try to err on the side of honesty, we all face situations where we feel we have no option except to tell a lie. Setting aside the ethics of the matter, most of us probably don’t feel good about lying. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s normal to worry that whoever you’re lying to will easily be able to tell. Again, unless you’re being very obvious, the chances of someone else picking up on it are smaller than you think. In one study, participants asked to lie to other participants estimated they’d be caught about half the time. In fact, people only guessed they were lying about a quarter of the time—a rate low enough for random chance to account for it.

Tactics

“Even if one is neither vain nor self-obsessed, it is so extraordinary to be oneself—exactly oneself and no one else—and so unique, that it seems natural that one should also be unique for someone else.” ― Simone de Beauvoir

Understanding how the illusion of transparency works can help you navigate otherwise challenging situations with ease.

Start with accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re thinking and feeling. If you want someone to know your mental state, you need to tell them in the clearest terms possible. You can’t make assumptions. Being subtle about your feelings is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by communicating plainly in words about your feelings or views.

Likewise, if you think you know how someone else feels, you should ask them to confirm. You shouldn’t assume you’ve got it right—you probably haven’t. If it’s important, you need to double check. The person who seems calm on the surface might be frenzied underneath. Some of us just appear unhappy to others all the time, no matter how we’re feeling. If you can’t pick up on someone’s mental state, they might not be vocalizing it because they think it’s obvious. So ask.

As Dylan Evans writes in Risk Intelligence: How To Live With Uncertainty,

The first and most basic remedy is simply to treat all your hunches about the thoughts and feelings of other people with a pinch of salt and to be similarly skeptical about their ability to read your mind. It can be hard to resist the feeling that someone is lying to you, or that your own honesty will shine through, but with practice it can be done.

The illusion of transparency doesn’t go away just because you know someone well. Even partners, family members and close friends have difficulty reading each other’s mental states. The problem compounds when we think they should be able to do this. We can easily become annoyed when they can’t. If you’re upset or angry and someone close to you doesn’t make any attempt to make you feel better, they are not necessarily ignoring you. They just haven’t noticed anything is wrong, or they may not know how you want them to respond. As Hanlon’s razor teaches us, it’s best not to assume malicious intent. Understanding this can help avoid arguments that spring up based on thinking we’re communicating clearly when we’re not.

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Set yourself free

Knowing about the illusion of transparency can be liberating. Guess what? No one really cares. Or almost no one. If you’ve got food stuck between your teeth or you stutter during a speech or you’re exhausted at work, you might as well assume no one has noticed. Most of the time, they haven’t.

Back to public speaking: We get it all wrong when we think people can tell we’re nervous about giving a talk. In a study entitled “The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety,” Kenneth Savitskya and Thomas Gilovich tested how knowing about the effect could help people feel less scared about public speaking.1 When participants were asked to give a speech, their self-reported levels of nervousness were well above what audience members guessed they were experiencing. Inside, they felt like a nervous wreck. On the outside, they looked calm and collected.

But when speakers learned about the illusion of transparency beforehand, they were less concerned about audience perceptions and therefore less nervous. They ended up giving better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. It’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re saying if you’re not so worried about what everyone else is thinking.

The sun revolves around me, doesn’t it?

In psychology, anchoring refers to our tendency to make an estimated guess by selecting whatever information is easily available as our “anchor,” then adjusting from that point. Often, the adjustments are insufficient. This is exactly what happens when you try to guess the mental state of others. If we try to estimate how a friend feels, we take how we feel as our starting point, then adjust our guess from there.

According to the authors of a paper entitled “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Other’s Ability to Read One’s Emotional States,”

People are typically quite aware of their own internal states and tend to focus on them rather intently when they are strong. To be sure, people recognize that others are not privy to the same information as they are, and they attempt to adjust for this fact when trying to anticipate another’s perspective. Nevertheless, it can be hard to get beyond one’s own perspective even when one knows that.

This is similar to hindsight bias, where things seem obvious in retrospect, even if they weren’t beforehand. When you look back on an event, it’s hard to disentangle what you knew then from what you know now. You can only use your current position as an anchor, a perspective which is inevitably skewed.

If you’re trying to hide your mental state, you’re probably doing better than you think. Unless you’re talking to, say, a trained police interrogator or professional poker player, other people are easy to fool. They’re not looking that hard, so a mild effort to hide your emotions is likely to work well. People can’t read your mind, whether you’re trying to pretend you don’t hate the taste of a trendy new beer, or trying to conceal your true standing in a negotiation to gain more leverage.

The illusion of transparency explains why, even once you’re no longer a teenager, it still seems like few people understand you. It’s not that other people are ambivalent or confused. Your feelings just aren’t as clear as you think. Often you can’t see beyond the confines of your own head and neither can anyone else. It’s best to make allowances for that.

Footnotes
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    https://rsrc.psychologytoday.com/files/u47/sdarticle.pdf

How to Use Occam’s Razor Without Getting Cut

Occam’s razor is one of the most useful, (yet misunderstood,) models in your mental toolbox to solve problems more quickly and efficiently. Here’s how to use it.

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Occam’s razor (also known as the “law of parsimony”) is a problem-solving principle which serves as a useful mental model. A philosophical razor is a tool used to eliminate improbable options in a given situation. Occam’s is the best-known example.

Occam’s razor can be summarized as follows:

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

The Basics

In simpler language, Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is preferable to one that is more complex. Simple theories are easier to verify. Simple solutions are easier to execute.

In other words, we should avoid looking for excessively complex solutions to a problem, and focus on what works given the circumstances. Occam’s razor can be used in a wide range of situations, as a means of making rapid decisions and establishing truths without empirical evidence. It works best as a mental model for making initial conclusions before the full scope of information can be obtained.

Science and math offer interesting lessons that demonstrate the value of simplicity. For example, the principle of minimum energy supports Occam’s razor. This facet of the second law of thermodynamics states that wherever possible, the use of energy is minimized. Physicists use Occam’s razor in the knowledge that they can rely on everything to use the minimum energy necessary to function. A ball at the top of a hill will roll down in order to be at the point of minimum potential energy. The same principle is present in biology. If a person repeats the same action on a regular basis in response to the same cue and reward, it will become a habit as the corresponding neural pathway is formed. From then on, their brain will use less energy to complete the same action.

The History of Occam’s Razor

The concept of Occam’s razor is credited to William of Ockham, a 14th-century friar, philosopher, and theologian. While he did not coin the term, his characteristic way of making deductions inspired other writers to develop the heuristic. Indeed, the concept of Occam’s razor is an ancient one. Aristotle produced the oldest known statement of the concept, saying, “We may assume the superiority, other things being equal, of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.”

Robert Grosseteste expanded on Aristotle’s writing in the 1200s, declaring

That is better and more valuable which requires fewer, other circumstances being equal…. For if one thing were demonstrated from many and another thing from fewer equally known premises, clearly that is better which is from fewer because it makes us know quickly, just as a universal demonstration is better than particular because it produces knowledge from fewer premises. Similarly, in natural science, in moral science, and in metaphysics the best is that which needs no premises and the better that which needs the fewer, other circumstances being equal.

Nowadays, Occam’s razor is an established mental model which can form a useful part of a latticework of knowledge.

Mental Model Occam's Razor

Examples of the Use of Occam’s Razor

The Development of Scientific Theories

Occam’s razor is frequently used by scientists, in particular for theoretical matters. The simpler a hypothesis is, the more easily it can be proven or falsified. A complex explanation for a phenomenon involves many factors which can be difficult to test or lead to issues with the repeatability of an experiment. As a consequence, the simplest solution which is consistent with the existing data is preferred. However, it is common for new data to allow hypotheses to become more complex over time. Scientists choose to opt for the simplest solution as the current data permits, while remaining open to the possibility of future research allowing for greater complexity.

The version used by scientists can best be summarized as:

When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is better.

The use of Occam’s razor in science is also a matter of practicality. Obtaining funding for simpler hypotheses tends to be easier, as they are often cheaper to prove.

Albert Einstein referred to Occam’s razor when developing his theory of special relativity. He formulated his own version: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Or, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The physicist Stephen Hawking advocates for Occam’s razor in A Brief History of Time:

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.

Isaac Newton used Occam’s razor too when developing his theories. Newton stated: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” He sought to make his theories, including the three laws of motion, as simple as possible, with only the necessary minimum of underlying assumptions.

Medicine

Modern doctors use a version of Occam’s razor, stating that they should look for the fewest possible causes to explain their patient’s multiple symptoms, and give preference to the most likely causes. A doctor we know often repeats the aphorism that “common things are common.” Interns are instructed, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” For example, a person displaying influenza-like symptoms during an epidemic would be considered more likely to be suffering from influenza than an alternative, rarer disease. Making minimal diagnoses reduces the risk of over-treating a patient, causing panic, or causing dangerous interactions between different treatments. This is of particular importance within the current medical model, where patients are likely to see numerous health specialists and communication between them can be poor.

Prison Abolition and Fair Punishment

Occam’s razor has long played a role in attitudes towards the punishment of crimes. In this context, it refers to the idea that people should be given the least punishment necessary for their crimes. This is to avoid the excessive penal practices which were popular in the past. For example, a 19th-century English convict could receive five years of hard labor for stealing a piece of food.

The concept of penal parsimony was pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. He held that punishments should not cause more pain than they prevent. Life imprisonment for murder could be seen as justified in that it might prevent a great deal of potential pain, should the perpetrator offend again. On the other hand, long-term imprisonment of an impoverished person for stealing food causes substantial suffering without preventing any.

Bentham’s writings on the application of Occam’s razor to punishment led to the prison abolition movement and many modern ideas related to rehabilitation.

Exceptions and Issues

It is important to note that, like any mental model, Occam’s razor is not foolproof. Use it with care, lest you cut yourself. This is especially crucial when it comes to important or risky decisions. There are exceptions to any rule, and we should never blindly follow the results of applying a mental model which logic, experience, or empirical evidence contradict. When you hear hoofbeats behind you, in most cases you should think horses, not zebras—unless you are out on the African savannah.

Furthermore, simple is as simple does. A conclusion can’t rely just on its simplicity. It must be backed by empirical evidence. And when using Occam’s razor to make deductions, we must avoid falling prey to confirmation bias. In the case of the NASA moon landing conspiracy theory, for example, some people consider it simpler for the moon landing to have been faked, others for it to have been real. Lisa Randall best expressed the issues with the narrow application of Occam’s razor in her book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe:

Another concern about Occam’s Razor is just a matter of fact. The world is more complicated than any of us would have been likely to conceive. Some particles and properties don’t seem necessary to any physical processes that matter—at least according to what we’ve deduced so far. Yet they exist. Sometimes the simplest model just isn’t the correct one.

This is why it’s important to remember that opting for simpler explanations still requires work. They may be easier to falsify, but still require effort. And that the simpler explanation, although having a higher chance of being correct, is not always true.

Occam’s razor is not intended to be a substitute for critical thinking. It is merely a tool to help make that thinking more efficient. Harlan Coben has disputed many criticisms of Occam’s razor by stating that people fail to understand its exact purpose:

Most people oversimplify Occam’s razor to mean the simplest answer is usually correct. But the real meaning, what the Franciscan friar William of Ockham really wanted to emphasize, is that you shouldn’t complicate, that you shouldn’t “stack” a theory if a simpler explanation was at the ready. Pare it down. Prune the excess.

Remember, Occam’s razor is complemented by other mental models, including fundamental error distribution, Hanlon’s razor, confirmation bias, availability heuristic and hindsight bias. The nature of mental models is that they tend to all interlock and work best in conjunction.

Ayn Rand on Why Philosophy Matters

Nearly four decades after her death, many of Ayn Rand’s works remain controversial and divide people into two camps: love them or hate them. Her lesser known book on philosophy provides broad, timeless insights. Here are her thoughts on the value of philosophy.

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A note on keeping an open mind:

Ayn Rand is a controversial figure. Responses to her ideas seem to land on extremes. The problem with this kind of discourse is that it prevents dialogue. We encourage taking advantage of grey thinking and trying to avoid viewing people and ideas as good/bad binaries. We can learn from people we both like and dislike. We can agree with one idea from someone without having to buy into all their ideas.

There is no doubt that Rand’s essays are polemic. Her writing, like all recorded knowledge, needs to be understood in context. The 1970s saw the height of the Cold War, when capitalism versus communism was set as a battle that would decide the fate of humanity. One need not agree with her political and economic prescriptions to get something interesting from her writing. Accepting this complexity is aligning with the complicated nature of the world. With this in mind, let’s continue!

In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand raises questions that dive into the heart of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality. What can be known? What are our core responsibilities as human beings? The title of the book comes from a talk she gave at the United States Military Academy in 1974. It is a collection of essays written mostly in the 1970s, and explores ideas about the requirements of living a full life and participating well in the world.

Here are two key takeaways from this book:

We All Need Philosophy

To answer the original question of who needs philosophy, Rand argues that everyone does.

She suggests we need philosophy to help develop our values, and to defend ourselves against manipulation and control. Rand posits that everyone has a personal philosophy. In her view:

[y]our only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.

She goes on to advocate for the process of learning to identify first principles in our thinking processes. This involves picking apart assumptions about the foundations of our knowledge by asking questions like, “Why?” or, “How do I know this to be true? What are the standards a statement must meet in order to be considered true?” This kind of questioning is an important component of deliberate thinking. When we avoid challenging ourselves and others, we remain vulnerable to the influence of ideas that would ultimately do us harm.

Reflection is the key to thinking well

Rand claims that reflection is a responsibility we all have, and that it is a critical step in gaining useful knowledge.

The men who scorn or dread introspection take their inner states for granted, as an irreducible and irresistible primary, and let their emotions determine their actions. This means that they choose to act without knowing the context (reality), the causes (motives), and the consequences (goals) of their actions.

Letting our emotions dictate our actions results in rationalizing experience to fit what we feel, instead of dealing with the world as it actually is.

Rand makes an interesting distinction when she says, “What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an ‘open mind,’ but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.” Being willing to listen isn’t enough. We must be willing to engage with what we hear, not accepting at face value the often misinformed opinions of others.

She discusses how lazy thought processes hinder progress. Discussing the person who avoids reflection, she writes, ‘When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?”—not “What is required to do it?”’ It’s a handy approach to keep at the forefront. When confronted with obstacles, we can first consider the conditions necessary to tackling them, not if we have the capacity to do so.

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There are many philosophers and essayists that we continue to learn from, even as we gingerly pick our way around their flaws. One disappointment in the book is that Rand’s philosophy often doesn’t live up to the requirements she herself argues for. But she isn’t the first thinker whose questions are far more interesting than her answers.

Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking

Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both.

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As she lost consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting. — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Professor and former Knowledge Project Podcast guest, Barbara Oakley, is credited with popularizing the concept of focused and diffuse forms of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Oakley explains how distinct these modes are and how we switch between the two throughout the day. We are constantly in pursuit of true periods of focus – deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions where we see tangible results. Much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking. The diffuse mode is equally important to understand and pursue.

When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a diffuse mode of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as our natural mode of thinking, or the daydream mode; it’s when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.

Oakley uses evolutionary biology to explain why we have these two distinct modes. Vertebrates need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is useful for vital tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. On the other hand, the diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. She explains: “A bird, for example, needs to focus carefully so it can pick up tiny pieces of grain as it pecks the ground for food, and at the same time, it must scan the horizon for predators such as hawks…. If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon—almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes.”

Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them which matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill —a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.

Think of how your mind works when you read. As you read a particular sentence of a book, you can’t simultaneously step back to ponder the entire work. Only when you put the book down can you develop a comprehensive picture, drawing connections between concepts and making sense of it all.

In a journal article entitled “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” the authors write that “consciousness… ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating. This perennial rhythm of the mind—extracting information from the external world, withdrawing to inner musings, and then returning to the outer realm—defines mental life.” This mental oscillation is important. If we stay in a focused mode too long, diminishing returns set in and our thinking stagnates. We stop getting new ideas and can experience cognitive tunnelling. It’s also tiring, and we become less productive. This can also set the conditions for us to fall victim to counter-productive cognitive biases and risky shortcuts, as we lose context and the bigger picture.

History is peppered with examples of serendipitous discoveries and ideas that combined diffuse and focused thinking. In many cases, the broad insight came during diffuse thinking periods, while the concrete development work was accomplished in focused mode.

Einstein figured out relativity during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication, working until the day before his death. Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking. To turn these ideas into books, he then sticks to a focused schedule, writing 2000 words each morning. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road following seven years of travel and drawing links between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece in just three weeks using a 120-foot roll of tracing paper to avoid having to change the sheets in his typewriter. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali took advantage of micro-naps lasting less than a second to generate ideas. Take a look at the recorded schedule of any great mind and you will see a careful balance between activities chosen to facilitate both focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Studies exploring creative thinking have supported the idea that we need both types of thinking. In a paper entitled “The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming to Creative Processes,” Zedelius and Schooler write that “Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.” When asked to generate novel uses for common objects such as a brick or paperclip, a useful test of creativity, individuals who are given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitate diffuse thinking tend to come up with more ideas. So how can we better fit the two modes together?

One way is to work in intense, focused bursts. When the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, do something which is conducive to mind-wandering. Exercise, walk, read, or listen to music. We veer naturally toward this diffuse state—gazing out of windows, walking around the room or making coffee when focusing gets too hard. The problem is that activities which encourage diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Instead, we often opt for mediocre substitutes, like social media, which give our mind a break without really allowing for true mind-wandering.

Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain. Entering the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something which ideally is physically absorbing and mentally freeing. It might feel like taking a break or wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of creating something valuable.

The Best of Goethe’s Aphorisms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) Maxims and Reflections is a terrific source of philosophical wisdom. The German writer, statesman, lawyer, playwright, and polymath was brilliant at distilling complex questions and concepts into simple, reflective statements. His wisdom was derived from a life spent learning, thinking, and transmitting knowledge across a wide variety of fields. He crafted volumes of poetry, dramas, and thought pieces on botany, human anatomy, and even the science of color. From his 590 aphorisms, here are our favorites which we hope you enjoy pondering:

#2. How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.

#7. Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

#19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.

#20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.

#33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.

#34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.

#37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.

#60. Wisdom lies only in truth.

#65. Generosity wins favor for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.

#91. Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.

#102. So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.

#124. One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.

#130. Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.

#131. There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.

#134. The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognizing a truth which has already been recognized by others.

#143. No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show how much determination he is capable of.

#152. Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.

#162. There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.

#184. We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.

#211. Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.

#223. We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try and resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.

#231. Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.

#239. To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.

#264. A man’s manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.

#270. Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.

#276. Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.

#278. Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.

#320. A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.

#324. It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.

#332. Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.

#345. A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.

#346. The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.

#383. Every man hears only what he understands.

#485. There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.

#486. Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.

#488. The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in music; for in music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.

#529. We more readily confess to errors, mistakes and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.

#554. A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.

#579. There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.

#584. Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.

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If you enjoyed reading these you may also be interested in digesting similar lists of aphorisms we wrote about:

From Eastern Philosophy: Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin 

From the mind of Nassim Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

And an interesting discussion criticizing aphorisms: Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom