Inflation of Communal Values

May 25, 2017

I recently discovered an old journal entry in which I wrote about my observations of something I called at the time "the inflation of communal values". I later discovered that there is a proper term for this phenomenon in social science ("value signalling"), but I still prefer mine.

So what is the "inflation of communal values"? Let's say you and I are both hunting enthusiasts. We are so enthusiastic about it, in fact, that we spend all our free time reading about it, researching new guns/gadgets, and learning from well-known thought leaders in the hunting community. Soon, we are members of "the community". Once we are in the community, the social animals that we are, we have some deep-seated needs, concisely articulated by Adam Smith:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred.

In other words, members of a community seek prestige and high status in the eyes of other community members.

By definition, the members of any community have come together because of a set of shared values. Naturally, the community members' attempt at winning high status among their peers will be centred around these values. However, we often don't win status by objective superiority – we do so by proxies for objective superiority. To continue our example of the hunting community, it is not necessarily the best hunter who will have the highest status but the person who signal attributes that other members associate with being a good hunter. In the hunting community, that might be a displayed desire for ever more powerful riles or fancy gear. Naturally, there will be a core group of hunters who are serious about their craft and resent those try to win prestige through a proxy. However, as is often the case in social value signalling, proxies are easier to observe and cheaper to produce than the actual effect.

What happens if a few members in our hypothetical hunting community successfully win prestige by showing their obsession for large rifles? Well, soon other members will try to win prestige by showing their obsession for even larger rifles. Once this trend gets started, no sane social animal will espouse the benefits of smaller, less powerful rifles. Doing so would be social suicide in the hunting community.

And that is the inflation of communal values. After a while, nobody remembers anything about the actual utility of large rifles. They might even be a hinderance to actually being good hunters. But for any non-trivially sized community, most members will care more about their prestige as judged by other members than they do about the actual raison-d'Γͺtre of the community (more on that here). The example of the hunting community is certainly contrived and simplified. In most real-life examples, you'll notice that there are many axes for signalling high-value status, but the inflation of communal values is easily observed in any sufficiently large community:

  • In the community of Apple fans, it was unfashionable for a long time to acknowledge any positive attribute of Apple's competing products.
  • Among hipsters, being contrarian is itself a signal for high value, no matter how nonsensical this non-conformity might be.
  • A feminist who postulates there might be explanations for the pay gap beyond an oppressive patriarchy will likely find herself with few feminist friends.
  • Among social justice activists, ever-increasing sensitivity to ever more-subtle slights is the currency of the day.

I used to consider this kind of phenomenon a mind-virus – a vulnerability in our rational faculties. I have since learned that this kind of "malfunction" is a feature, not a bug. For the most part, this is rational behaviour for social animals whose reputation and prestige status directly factors into their survival and reproduction value. However, in situation where "truth" is more important than "utility", this is a trap that we have to be very cognisant of.

Of course, it is the last two examples listed above (feminism, and the social justice movement) that are of particular importance today. Inflation of communal values takes place in every community, but it is particularly dangerous to society when the values being inflated involve judgements of morality. In that specific context, social scientists call the phenomenon "moral grandstanding".

Let's say you and I are part of a martial arts club, and let's say, hypothetically, that this martial art is aikido - a Japanese form of self-defence that's similar to Judo in that it promises smaller practitioners overcoming larger opponents by using their energy against them.

Now, as it turns out, learning aikido is pretty damn hard, but everyone who practices it wants to be seen as having learned it. This is the first requirement for inflation:

  • Members of a community seek prestige and high status in the eyes of other community members.

In this community, some people will practice diligently and for many years until they've mastered the art and by teaching and demonstrating their master, they will earn prestige status, which at a deep, psychological level is what we're all motivated by. However, the problem with this approach is that it's obviously high-cost. It is far from the most efficient way to gain prestige status. Those who seek a more "efficient" approach might try to give the appearance of having mastered aikido