Monthly Archives: October 2015

Why messages of attraction are ambiguous

There are many behaviours by which one human shows being sexually attracted to another – staring at them, running fingers through one’s hair, standing close, smiling at them, etc. Most of these are ambiguous, meaning they can be explained away by nonsexual reasons. Staring may be due to being lost in thought and looking absently at a single point, which happens to contain a person. Adjusting the hair could happen because the hair feels messy. One could randomly stand close to someone, smile because one is happy for unrelated reasons and so on.
There are obvious benefits of clear messages – no wasted effort chasing someone not interested, no awkward situations, no false accusations that one’s partner was sending signals of interest to someone else. Why has evolution led to messages of attraction that create doubt in the observers?
If someone’s sexual advances are unsuccessful, this is interpreted as a negative signal about the rejected person and lowers their chances in the future. Rejection makes one wonder what the rejecter knew about their admirer that is unattractive. If a person has characteristics that makes others reject them, the offspring of that person are likely to inherit these and also be unsuccessful in mating. Unsuccessful offspring mean the fitness of the rejected person is low, justifying rejecting them. This evolutionary mechanism is called Fisherian sexual selection. Because of it, nobody wants to be seen to be rejected. One way to hide rejections is to hide the wooing and if rejected, pretend to be uninterested anyway (sour grapes).
Someone attempting to cheat on their partner obviously does not want others to see their advances on another person. People gossip, so hidden signals with plausible deniability are useful.
Some people take advantage of those attracted to them (the advantage may differ for men and women), so it is good to send messages of attraction only to those who are attracted in return. Someone who is interested pays more attention to a person, so is more likely to notice ambiguous messages from them. Wishful thinking makes an interested recipient interpret mixed messages favourably. Of course there is a positive probability of a mistake, but the difference between the probability of interested people versus unintended recipients noticing a signal is greater for ambiguous than clear messages. This is like encryption – there is a positive probability of friendlies having lost the encryption key, but the difference between the probability of friendlies versus hostiles understanding the message is greater for encrypted text.
Dating websites have probably figured this out, because they allow private messages. An additional improvement may be self-destructing messages that can only be viewed once. This makes it harder for the recipient of a message to prove someone’s interest to others and thus lower their admirer’s reputation after rejecting them. Randomly generating messages of attraction and sending them to people would give plausible deniability to those who are rejected. The benefit of deniability must be weighed against the loss to the recipients of false signals.

Of airline food and a day of service

The purpose of airline food is not to feed people but to show that the airline cares. The small plastic boxes with different food in each are a pretense of a multi-course meal. Multi-course meals are considered fancy. If the goal was to feed people, then a large sandwich or a bowl of pasta would be logistically simpler to provide and eat, cheaper and more filling.
Similarly a day of service (of volunteering) of some organization is not designed to help others but to show that the organization cares. The organization wants to be seen to be helping. If educated employees go and clean the park or work at a soup kitchen, it is a waste of their talents. It would be more productive to do their regular work and donate their salary to hire cheaper labour for the simple volunteering jobs. More volunteering output (cleaner park, food for the homeless) would be produced. Division of labour increases overall productivity, as Adam Smith pointed out.
Volunteering by highly qualified people may make sense if it is a vacation for them – their enjoyment outweighs the productivity loss relative to the efficient arrangement where everyone does their specialized job. A different type of work is a break from routine, which may be restful.
Once I participated in the Yale Day of Service. It was supposed to last from 9:00 to 14:00, so more like a half-day of service. Many people were late, so we started going towards the worksite at about 9:30 and reached it in ten or fifteen minutes. We were supposed to clear the underbrush among some park trees. The tools were dull gardening shears. The work ended at about 12:30. One person with a motorized trimmer could have done in ten minutes what twenty people with shears did in two hours. Clearly the goal was not to clear the park of bushes and weeds, but either a social event or a show of caring. Namewise, Yale Two Hours of Service sounds less nice than a Day.