For signaling? (Part I)


Your T-shirt is embarrassing. Have you considered wearing a less embarrassing T-shirt?

You are suggesting I spend my precious time trying to look good. Well I am good, and so I’m not going to do that. Because signaling is bad. You can tell something is bad when the whole point of it is to have costs. Signaling is showing off. Signaling benefits me at someone else’s equal expense. I won’t wear a less embarrassing T-shirt because to Hell with signaling.

Hmm. That seems wrong. Signaling is about honest communication when the stakes are high—which is often important! And just because it’s called ‘costly’ doesn’t mean it is meant to have costs. It only has to be too costly for liars, and if it’s working then they won’t be doing any signaling anyway. ‘Costly signals’ can be very cheap for those who use them. I think signaling is often wonderful for society.

Give me three examples where it is ‘wonderful’.

Driver’s licences. Showing a driver’s licence is a costly signal of being a decent driver, which communicates something useful honestly, is cheap for the people who are actually good drivers, and lets the rest of society distinguish people who are likely to drive safely from people who are not, which is amazingly great.

Driving tests don’t seem that cheap to me, but I’ll grant that they are probably worth it. Still, this seems like a strange corner case of ‘signaling’ that was explicitly designed by humans. It fits the economic definition of ‘costly signaling’ but if you have to go that far from the central examples to find something socially beneficial, that doesn’t increase my regard for signaling. Next?

One of the most famous examples of signaling is in the job market. Potential candidates show a hirer their qualifications, which allows the hirer to employ more appropriate candidates. You might disagree about whether all of the signals that people use are socially optimal—for instance if education is mostly for signaling, it seems fairly destructive, because it is so expensive. But you must agree that companies do a lot better hiring the people they choose than they would hiring random people they would get if good candidates couldn’t signal their quality. And at least many aspects of the interview process are cheap enough to be totally worth it. For instance, being able to have a polite and friendly conversation about the subject matter.

Of course companies are better off—companies aren’t the people destroying years of their productive lives on deliberately arduous fake work. Or learning a lot of irrelevant but testable skills. Or degrading themselves and society with faux friendliness. And you ignore some other key details, like what the actual alternative would realistically look like. But let’s not go into it—I’ll grant you that hiring probably goes better overall than it would with zero signaling and no replacement, even though the signaling is awful. And more importantly, that the the whole of society on net is probably best off with some kind of signaling there. I don’t know of a good replacement.

Ok, great. So, third—T-shirts. T-shirts signal personality traits. It is free to wear any T-shirt you want, but T-shirts are still costly signals in a sense, because if you aren’t a punk you won’t  know which T-shirt to wear to look like a genuine punk. And if you don’t like ABBA it is more costly for you to wear an ABBA t-shirt than it is for someone who does like them, because you’ll be embarrassed or unhappy at the association. And if you have bad taste, it is hard to know which T-shirt would indicate good taste. This all seems good, because it lets people cheaply find other people with similar interests, and also to learn facts about the people around them, regardless of similarity. Which is why it is socially destructive for you to wear that T-shirt— your taste can’t be that bad, so you are basically lying.

Ok, a fourth: how about when a friend is sick, and you make them tea and soup and put on a movie for them. This is a costly signal that you care about them, or at least  about your continuing friendship with them. Because it is effort for you with no reward if you don’t care much, and are looking to scale down the relationship soon. But aside from the signaling, this is probably a net social benefit—your friend gets soup and tea and a movie at a time when they could especially use them. Plus, feeling cared for instead of uncared for is a real benefit.

Ok, I concede that costly signaling can be honest, cheap, and on net socially beneficial. But I still think it usually isn’t! And I’m not sure how far we can get thinking about specific examples, since there are so many.

Ok, what do you propose?

Talking about our overall impressions. The big picture. Here is mine: the world is full of people pouring real wealth into things whose only use is to be rubbed in the face of those who can’t afford to destroy so much value. Where it isn’t even good for society to be able to distinguish the signalers from the rest.  Letting everyone see who is rich and who is poor, who is socially competent and who is not, who is beautiful, who is smart, who can win at things that only exist to be won at—does this really lead to a great world?

There is much signaling that the world would be better off without. I admit I don’t really know what the balance of good and bad is like. But I disagree that we should be talking about signaling overall. Or even what is best for the world in this particular case. You are not the world. Even signaling that is terrible for the world is often good for you. If you are in a zero-sum game, and you are more worthy than the opponent, then do your best to win! And if you aren’t, then be more worthy!

What if I want what is best for society?

Even then, you don’t serve society by failing at signaling. Just because people fighting to look good is costly for society doesn’t mean that society gains anything by you intentionally losing that fight. If you are directing your resources to society, then it is better for society if you win. Often better enough to warrant the costs of playing. Serve society by winning at signaling and donating the proceeds to society. Wear a well ironed suit. Don’t talk about your erotic porcelain dinosaur collection. Go to university. Try to exercise good taste…

I agree, at least often. But I think you believe in a heuristic that says you should signal about as much and in similar ways as if you were selfish. Because you are on the side of good, so protecting yourself is protecting the good. You see people looking weird and embarrassing themselves in the name of caring about something, and you think they are failing at signaling. And that’s wrong.

Yeah, I guess you should signal a tiny bit less on the margin, in cases where signaling is socially destructive. But it’s such a small thing, I’m not sure it is worth thinking about.

I don’t mean that. Your selfish interests can come apart from society’s interests almost entirely, in signaling. As an extreme case, imagine that you became confident that by far the best cause for improving the world was promoting incest. From a selfish perspective, you probably don’t want to look like you are promoting incest, because there are few worse ways to look in modern society. But from an altruistic perspective, supposing that you were right about incest, it may well be best for you to promote it, because it would do so much for making incest look better, at just the cost of your own reputation.

You should distinguish between wearing a clean shirt—good for your cause—and wearing a shirt that is more respectable because it is not about your cause—which is often bad for your cause. You can’t just use ‘looking good’ as a heuristic, even though it is generally good for your cause when its proponents look good.

That’s an interesting point, and I hadn’t really thought about it. But surely that’s pretty rare. There are systematic reasons that it’s unlikely that there is some cause which is radically more important than any other, and is completely politically unpalateable.

I agree that’s unlikely—just brought it up as a clear example of it being not worth looking good. I think this issue is maybe ubiquitous though, in less clear and extreme cases. For instance, everywhere sophisticated people play it cool, withholding enthusiasm from ideas until they no longer lack enthusiasm, polishing their own image at the expense of the very projects they are most excited about, or would be if they deigned to experience excitement.

A bold claim—I am curious to hear two more examples, but I have a lot of signaling to get done this evening. Same time next week?

Most likely. I hope you are correctly identified as the superior type in all of your endeavors.

3 responses to “For signaling? (Part I)

  1. A t-shirt that signals signals low class, especially if it signals with words. Perhaps it is acceptable to signal with quality fabric. I’m not sure about small images- it seems acceptable in some cases, but clearly one should have a butler like Jeeves about to ask. I suspect there is only so much the higher classes would do with a T-shirt except put another layer on over it.

  2. Ok, a fourth: how about when a friend is sick, and you make them tea and soup and put on a movie for them.

    I submit that that is not necessarily “signaling you care”, but caring being enacted.

    (Necessarily, because it can be signaling behavior, if they don’t especially want those things and one does them “because it is what one does to show you care”; but it they want soup and tea and a movie because it does comfort them, it is caring-in-action.

    It can, naturally, also be signaling, but it need not be; not all enactions are signs.)

    (If we’re going to use the language of signs and signification, we necessarily bring along with it the idea of that-to-which-the-sign-refers*, and the entire corpus of semiotics.

    * If there’s no referent, it’s not a sign, definitionally. You can’t signal a non-message.)

  3. Signalling is about saving work, physical, mental and emotional. Dogs use signalling to avoid having to repeatedly fight for social position. Birds use signalling to avoid eating toxic butterflies, even when some butterflies cheat and signal poison but don’t waste energy on producing toxins.

    If you are trying to sell something, perhaps your own labor, you can use signalling to your advantage. People don’t want to hire people that they spend all their time arguing with. One signal they use to detect this is to impose some Mickey Mouse requirement and see who puts on the silly hat and who doesn’t bother or argues loudly. An awful lot of real work has bogus requirements. Look at those dumb debates over the hamburger emoji. If you run a hamburger joint, you just want someone who can slap a burger together in the company prescribed order, and if a customer complains, says that the company made him or her do it that way.

    The classic example is David Lee Roth, a musician who had a rather spectacular traveling show. He was infamous for demanding that he be supplied with M&Ms in his dressing room, but no brown M&Ms. This was signalling. The band contract stipulated all sorts of things. His show had heavy equipment, so the stage had to be sturdy. It needed a lot of power, so there was electrical work. There were sometimes pyrotechnics, so they needed fire suppression available. It was a long list.

    If he found a brown M&M, he knew that someone hadn’t taken at least one item on the list seriously. His team would have to check out EVERYTHING carefully so that the show could be performed, no one would be burned alive or buried under a collapsed structure. He’d cancel the show if necessary. If there were no brown M&Ms, odds are all the other stuff was ship shape. He got quite a reputation as a primadonna.

    If you are selling a political idea, you want people to listen to you and take you seriously. If you insist on wearing a “fuck you” symbol, you’ve made your job harder. If you present the signals that your target trusts, you may still fail to change anyone’s mind, but you’ll have a much easier job stating your case.


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