Signalling Theory of Hobbies
Dynomight recently posted about his obsession with “tunnel man”, an unidentified 31 year old man who has grown obsessed with digging a tunnel, as described by his SO:
Most of the responses were pretty receptive, ranging from:
He should be careful, because the tunnel could collapse.
He should be careful, because he might run out of oxygen and die.
If tunneling makes him happy, then you should be supportive.
If tunneling is hurting your relationship, then you should talk to him.
After an update, the OP claimed that she was successful in getting her boyfriend to cut back on time spent digging the runnel, and convinced him to install ventilation.
Dynomight noted that there was little animosity towards the boyfriend in the thread, which I also find unusual. He theorized that this is because tunneling functions as a kind of anti-pornography where it is not an activity where evolution has optimized liking it and it is not an activity where humans have engineered it to be enjoyable. He listed some examples of activities to aid in conceptualization:
I have an alternative theory, which was originally promoted by Roko, which is that hobbies function as signalling mechanisms as well as enjoyment mechanisms. That is, that people judge others based on which hobbies they had and what traits they signal. He promoted this theory to argue why people who like Warhammer 40000 are “losers” even though high status men like Henry Cavill are avid fans of it. In the case of Henry Cavill, he is doing what sociologists call ‘countersignaling’, which is deliberately promoting signals of low class or status to inadvertently signal their high status.
In the case of the tunnel man, he is signalling high levels of industriousness and conscientiousness by digging a tunnel for a whole year.
There is some evidence that engaging in online gaming correlates with certain personality traits - low levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness in particular. Unfortunately, they use somewhat dubious measurements of time spent online gaming: the internet online gaming scale and the gaming addiction scale, which will disproportionately measure harmful use.
That said, there are some activities which clearly signal personality traits. Volunteering in particular is associated with high levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and emotional stability.
Popular hobbies are probably selected for the degree to which they provide a sense of hedonic pleasure (e.g. doing heroin) and signalling value (e.g. volunteering). Because of that, the social desirability value and hedonic value of popular hobbies should be anti-correlated. To test this hypothesis, I thought of several popular hobbies and sourced others from lists like this one. I then labelled which characteristics I thought each of them signalled and and how much I thought the average person would enjoy this hobby. I then constructed a social desirability index based on the personality traits each of the hobbies signalled: +3 for each point of intelligence, conscientiousness, and wealth, +2 for each point of extraversion and openness, +1 for each point of agreeableness, and -2 for each point of neuroticism.
I found that ‘subjective enjoyment’ and ‘social desirability’ were strongly anti-correlated (r = -.61, p < .001). That is, that hobbies which I judged to be the most ‘fun’ were also the ones that are the most socially undesirable.
There is a degree to which the measurement of the social desirability of hobbies is inaccurate - doing heroin is definitely less desirable than watching television, but the overall rank order seems to be accurate to me.
Beyond my initial theory, I can think of several reasons why these measurements anti-correlate:
Conscientious/intelligent people are more able to delay gratification, so they are more likely to engage in hobbies that do not provide immediate gratification. There is one problem here - why needlessly delay gratification? Hobbies are meant to be for fun/socializing, not productive ends.
Conscientious/intelligent people are more likely to engage in hobbies that have some underlying use, while others are more likely to engage in hobbies that are based on hedonism. This is probably true to some degree, but this still somewhat defeats the purpose of the term “hobby”. And, the tunnel man example does throw a wrench into this explanation, as digging the tunnel has no underlying purpose to it, but because it signals positive traits, it is not maligned as much as watching porn or smoking weed.
The definition of a “hobby” is also somewhat convoluted. In theory it is an activity that is done for the sake of pleasure, but in practice many hobbies have productive consequences (e.g. improvements to physique, learning), and very few of them are overtly hedonistic; even some low status hobbies like watching television may be useful for learning about different archetypes, cultures, or social norms.
In terms of practical implications of this theory, I think hobbies are best ranked by their ability to provide hedonistic pleasure, productive ends, act as a socialization tool, and signa prosocial traits. From this perspective, I have the following to say about several popular hobbies:
Reading: I don’t recommend reading fiction, unless the book in question is high quality. It’s not particularly pleasing, it doesn’t have a lot of practical use, and intelligence can be signalled in more useful ways.
Writing: I also don’t recommend writing as a hobby for similar reasons, unless you write for work or are a strange person.
Gaming: pleasing, but not particularly productive or socially desirable. Best done in small quantities.
Watching television: watching television is underrated - it can be done in a social setting, it serves as a cultural transmission device, and high quality television is entertaining. That said, I do not recommend it as a main hobby - it’s socially undesirable and not productive. I cannot speak for western media, but there are only so many good anime, and watching more than ~200 series is probably not a good use of time.
Pornography: I don’t think current evidence supports that it is damaging (see NullSci article), but it probably causes increases in paraphilias and kinks, including homosexuality and pedophilia. Would recommend limiting consumption to stay on the safe side, otherwise I don’t have strong feelings about it.
Cooking: highly recommend - good for impressing dates regardless of your sex, is productive, can be done in a social setting, and can be accompanied by a different activity (e.g. listening to a podcast).
Traveling: I find traveling for reasons unrelated to work/high quality social interaction to be extremely unpleasant. That said, it seems to be a very popular hobby, so this is probably not a universal experience.
Exercise: not pleasant, but satisfying. Highly recommend, as it is productive, can be done in social settings, and is socially desirable.
Astrology: it’s hard to talk about this one without mentioning the sex difference. Some women seem to be very into it, while almost all men think it is a joke or even a red flag. Regardless, it’s probably best to steer clear from this one.
Weed: gay. Anti-productive and socially undesirable.
Heroin: straight, but still not a good hobby. Expensive and potentially damaging.
Dancing: underrated hobby - socially desirable, enjoyable, and promotes physical fitness.
Collecting: do not recommend. Expensive, seems boring, and is not productive. Doesn’t seem to be socially desirable or undesirable - I think this is because it signals both resources and autism/immaturity at the same time.
Card games: more boring than gaming, but less socially undesirable and easier to do in a social setting.
Photography: do not recommend. Seems boring and sinks money.
Alcohol: Personally, I am a committed teetotaler, but that’s probably not best for some of people. Inhibition and anxiety can lead to stiff or awkward social situations, and alcohol can reduce this.
Wine tasting: gay.
(and apologies for the posting delay - hopefully a piece of mine will be coming out in 1-2 weeks in <redacted> and another in 4-6 weeks in <redacted>. The next issue of the Mankind Quarterly is also coming out soon, and should have some of my work in there as well)