Thoughts On Economic Signaling And Mix Tapes

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For years economists have been writing about signaling. To them, you can tell a lot about a person’s intentions in the marketplace by the information he puts out there. And someone won the Nobel Prize for this? Since the beginning of time, hasn’t this been intuitive?

Trog: How did you know the mastodon was coming for you?

Grok: Oh, it’s the little things I guess. It was warm, so my scent carried. And I’d been gathering berries…

Trog: With the Gatherers? Careful, Grok. You’re a Hunter. We’re probably dozens of years away from breaking down traditional gender stereotypes.

Grok: Fair enough. Anyway, it was partly the warm air and partly the berries. But mostly it was that massive animal closing in on me at an incredible rate of speed.

This just seems pretty obvious. I mean, if my buddy Kevin yammers on about his raise and promotion, I might say sounds like you’re movin’ on up to the east side. This signals to Kevin that I’m happy for him but it’s time to cork it: the putt Tim is lining up isn’t going to make itself. And when Greg, who is new to our foursome, sings under his breath to a deluxe apartment in the sky, he signals to me that we’re gonna be fast friends.

The economic theory gets less ink these days, but that’s just because technology is drawing us apart rather than closer together. The high-water mark for signal theorists was a period called the Mix Tape Era. It fit neatly between the Flared Pants Era and the Wait, Let Me Guess, Another Grunge Band From the Pacific Northwest Era. 

The Mix Tape Era was the golden age of signal theory. Just think about the treasure trove of coded messages that went back and forth within this complex mating ritual. Renewed focus on the time and its customs is evident in current academic literature. (See “Can We Please Go Back to 1983?” Idol, Billy, Journal of Things That Will Never Happen). You who came of age then know what I’m talking about. As sure as you will sing along the next time you hear “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, you know what I’m talking about.

Let’s start with the obvious. Who made the mix tape for whom? Rarely are two people in a relationship who made tapes for one other. There was the tape-maker – the signaler – and the object of his/her affection. The tape-maker signals pursuit and the recipient signals leverage, as in I have it in this relationship. What signals might the tape-maker send?

“Amie” (Pure Prairie League) – I am a Steady-Eddie, willing to play the long game in this relationship. I’ll also put drinks on coasters without being told.

“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” (Paul Simon) – I am fun-loving and have many friends. This choice shrewdly hedges a downside risk: if you end up with me, there is no chance I will ever build a bookcase out of your bones.

Anything by the Cure – Get out of this relationship, like yesterday. If a man made the tape, he’s trying too hard, and what does he really know about the feminine mystique if this is the best he can do? If a woman made the tape, things may go fine between you two, but at least one of your kids will be Goth. To this day, whenever I hear the Cure I expect to be making out with someone within seven minutes. This is why it is dangerous to hear the Cure in places like Jiffy Lube.

“Something to Talk About” (Bonnie Raitt) – This is the nuclear option. You don’t lay down this track unless you’re all-in on the relationship. Think Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything” – this is boombox-over-the-head time. There’s simply no turning back once this shot is fired; you’ve engaged and revealed your position. If you must do it, it should be no sooner than the third song on side one – just the right amount of nonchalance – and never on side two – that’s sandbagging.

“The Way You Look Tonight” (Frank Sinatra Version)/Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton) – Be careful with this guy, he’s peaking too soon. They’re both unbelievably good love songs, but for him there’s nowhere to go but down. Over time his lack of subtlety will be painfully evident, like being stuck between floors in an elevator with Zooey Deschanel.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge) – Marry him.

I could go on and on, but I’ve been summoned to Princeton. A groundbreaking study on multitasking shows that mix tape-makers – who generally drove stick-shift and frequently hit rewind and fast forward on their car stereo, all while eating a burrito and cradling a Big Gulp between their legs – are quite good at it.