I think there's an important element to this that, surprisingly, you don't mention in the essay.


Everything you said about costly and low-cost signaling is accurate, but these describe rather than define a signal as social behavior.

A "signal" is something enacted to, well, signal- the express goal is to display the bona fides of a personal characteristic.

If I make an expensive, anonymous donation to a philanthropic cause, I'm not signaling, regardless of its costliness.

As a category of behavior, having the signal properly seen and understood is central to signaling, not so much its content.

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Your “costly signaling” definition reminds me of this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I also appreciated this part:

“... signals are often actually more about the receiver than the sender.”

I’ve been thinking recently how we don’t always take accountability for the messages we receive and how we receive them.

For example: If a public figure attempts to give an uplifting message or one to motivate action on an important cause, and then people take to Twitter saying how they should be more careful about what they say because someone could weaponize that message. (When by theorizing about the weaponization of a message, they’ve already kind of done just that.)

I feel like I’ve seen that in a lot of recent news events in the last few years—but over the last few months particularly.

Great article. Got me thinking.

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Apr 10·edited Apr 10

As a Christian, one of the key things Jesus said was that all our signaling in God's behalf (visible signaling) does nothing for us in the eternal realm, only in the earthly. We are to give, fast and pray in secret, where only God sees. And if we do that God promises to reward us openly - although any such blessings cannot be tied back by others to our own actions if truly done secretly.

Problem is, it's hard to keep ourselves from telling someone...

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I think this is a very, very interesting take on the subject of signaling as an evo psych term, but not just because it is about signaling itself. The term is one of many, many features of the broader psychological states called character and I wish more models were included — most notably Psychodynamic psychotherapy. Which may be what guttermouth is alluding to by raising intent as necessary in the analysis. What I think is great about it is the implication that there is not just one use but a spectrum, as there is with many or most of our psychological attributes, from “cheap” on the one end (low character) to “costly” (high character) on the other. I think the determining factor there is quality of personal boundary function, making the difference between the two. (We can’t make a commitment or have true virtuous intention without advanced, mature personal boundary function). Thanks Rob; it’s innovative.

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I remember a key component of the definition of a signal from my college finance class: that it costs something to send, but it is significantly more costly to send a false signal.

This is true for non-financial signals as well. The key is not the cost of the signal, but the cost if it is false.

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