Doc| Author: Mati Roy | Created: 2020-12-07 |
Published: 2020-12-08 | Updated: 2020-12-08 | Comments: LessWrong
How can you signal that something is important?
In this piece, I briefly review ways people signal importance in the culture surrounding me and mention some of
their limitations when applicable. I also suggest new cultural elements (sections in
blue are about those — feel
free to skip to them).
I tried organizing different types of signaling in categories. Some relevant features I used:
Innate vs cultural
Innate: born with / genetics
Cultural: designed by humans
Artificially limited vs naturally limited
Artificially limited: the signal is useful because it’s not abused, not because it couldn’t
Naturally limited: the signal cannot (easily) be abused
Natural vs artificial
Natural: the signal is sent while trying to achieve the object-level goal
Ex.: by using money and time toward achieving the goal
Artificial: the signal is sent as a separate action from trying to chive the object-level goal
Ex.: by betting money that achieving a goal will have been useful
How a person seems to be feeling communicates how important they find something.
It helps knowing a person well to know what’s their baseline emotional variance.
You can create an attencedent for communicating in a certain way only when it’s important.
You can simply say how important you think something is. This is arguably the most straightforward signal.
If you don’t know someone very well, you don’t know how alarmist they are. It can be hard to have a good sense
of how important they think something is.
(inb4: someone is bound to signal how socially good they are by saying this is never a problem for them
Maintain a central list
I have a centralized list of ~all my published writings as well as
list of my recommended readings with a number out of 10
its importance. That way, the qualifiers are operationalized (ish) and the ratings are centralized, so it’s easy
anyone to have a glimpse at how I use the qualifiers.
Importance might vary for different people.
Although it shouldn’t be that long to make different ratings for specific people.
Note: This is also useful for people to rapidly see what your top recommendations are.
Note: If you have one, I’d be curious to see it :)
Create low volume channels
For example, I have a mailing list for high value information. On my website I write:
Subscribe to my mailing list to receive information I find
So far, since 2019-10-02, I've sent 0 emails. I plan to
continue sending few as I value your attention.
You can post at most once per calendar year. The idea is to only share important information. If you could only
tell us one thing per year, what would it be?
It has to be broadcasted to a group of people.
Naturally limited, valuable outside of signaling
Some resources are both useful in themselves and of limited quantity. So if you use them, or even just destroy
to signal that something is important, it will be a credible signal.
It’s not always natural.
Example when it’s natural: You offer to pay for someone’s cryopreservation.
Example when it’s not natural: You pay someone to exercise.
Some people might not want your money if they care about you and act paternalisticly.
Although you can also use bets.
But some bets are hard to operationalize.
You need to know how much money the person has to know how important it is to them.
It’s not always natural.
Example when it’s natural: You think it’s important for someone to know about something, so you teach
Example when it’s not natural: You go tell something to someone in person instead of through a video call
signal that it’s important, even though a call would have suffice to convey the object-level information.
It takes time.
Naturally limited, valuable mostly for signaling
Get permanent tattoos
Your body has a limited surface: you can only put so much information on it.
You cannot easily change your body for another one.
Your body is important to you.
So information on it can signal high importance. Although to the point that it can sometimes be seen as
You can also artificially limit it: you don’t have to use your whole-body. If you only have one tattoo about one
thing, then it will appear more important than if you have many tattoos about many things.
To distinguish people that don’t have tattoos because they are squeamish or otherwise don’t want tattoos for some
reasons, from people that just haven’t had anything sufficiently important to communicate so far, people could get
minimalist tattoo. This way, the absence of other tattoos would now communicate that this person has a high bar
important information or otherwise never had anything sufficiently important to say.
To avoid confounding the tattoo with something done for the purpose of being artsy, the tattoo should arguably not
To make this signal more obvious, it would help to make it more known — so arguably people should use the same
tattoo to communicate this.
There are other highly visible places where you can communicate a limited message, and so signals importance when
T-shirt with a message
Facebook frame on your profile picture
Facebook cover picture
Cut your hair
Similarly to tattoos, your capacity to cut your hair is limited (to how fast it grows).
Distinctions with tattoos:
It signals importance over months to years instead of one’s whole biological life
It’s not entangled with the message: Cutting your hair signals importance, but it needs to be attached to a
message that is not communicated with your body.
This can be useful in some situations; for example:
If it’s a private message
If you don’t want people to think you’re signaling something else to other people
Ex.: If you recommend an expensive medical treatment to your family, you might not want to tell
other people as otherwise it will be less clear whether you’re doing that mostly to appear like a
person that cares about their family rather than mostly for being someone that cares about their
But in other situations, this can be undesirable:
Having the message on you in order to broadcast it continuously can be useful if it’s a message you
to bring awareness to
With hair, only people that were there when you cut them can know what message was attached to it (or
least you’d need to show them a video)