Social signaling is a big deal.
A social signal is any behavior or decision, regardless of its form, intent, or the performer’s awareness, that emits information to observers.
There are three basic elements of signaling.
First, people differ in their underlying attributes.
These attributes could be work ethic, moral character, intelligence, sense of humor, compassion, and so on.
Second, these traits have to be at least a little uncertain at first glance.
You can’t necessarily spot a person’s moral character from a brief observation. And if you ask someone “How good is your moral character?” You can’t expect complete honesty. Most people will give you an upwardly biased response.
Third, people must differ in the strength of the signals they emit for these underlying qualities. If everyone is wearing the same outfit, then their clothes aren’t a viable signal of wealth.
There’s also a distinction between two kinds of signaling.
One is called “cheap talk.” For example, tweeting about how much you care about a topical political issue. This kind of signaling is easy to fake, and doesn’t tell you much about a person’s underlying attributes. Anyone can write a couple of short sentences about their concerns. But it doesn’t tell you much about the true strength of their commitment.
The other is called “costly signaling” or “honest signaling.” These signals are hard to fake. Not many people volunteer for months in a homeless shelter or make large, verifiable donations to a charitable cause. It’s reasonable to infer that those who do care more than those who tweet.
For a signal to count as costly, it must be grueling for most people. Those who manage to send the signal are indicating something unique about themselves. Something that separates them from the crowd.
I suspect people evolved more to respond to signals of underlying traits rather than the traits themselves.
Imagine you had to choose between 2 people to have sex with:
1. An extremely attractive person who shows you verified medical documents indicating that the person is riddled with contagious illnesses
2. A strange-looking person with misshapen facial features and limbs of asymmetrical length who shows you verified medical documents indicating that the person has a clean bill of health
A lot of people would find this difficult to answer. This suggests we often rely on signals (appearance) more so than the underlying attribute the signal is meant to convey (health).
There is nothing wrong with signaling. We evolved to signal to others. We evolved to detect signals from others.
Yet I see many people who throw around the term “signaling” as if the term refers only to empty gestures or shallow aims.
They conflate signaling in general with cheap talk, or cheap signals, which don’t convey much useful information.
But “signaling” also encompasses costly signals, which are real evidence of an underlying quality. Costly signals tell us what the person is really about.
If someone posts something dumb online, it is silly to say they are just “signaling.” Because everything we say and do carry signals of something.
Imagine a guy jumps in front of a bullet to save his best friend. Is this signaling? Well, yes. It is a signal of the person’s love for his friend, his moral character, his willingness to self-sacrifice, and so on.
But taking a bullet for a friend is not “just a signal” in the sense that it is the same as cheap talk. It is a costly, hard-to-fake indicator of desirable attributes.
And in that split second before catching the bullet, the guy isn’t thinking “If I do this, people will think I am brave, compassionate, righteous, etc.”
Signals are sometimes conscious, but they are often not deliberate at all. Nor are signals even always about the sender of the signal.
What a person does is a signal only insofar as others infer information from it.
If I am trying to signal something but you don’t pick up on it, then this is the same as there being no signal at all.
On the other hand, if I thoughtlessly behave in a certain way and you are inferring useful information from my actions, then I have signaled something even if I didn’t intend to.
In other words, signals are often actually more about the receiver than the sender.
This means we can’t refrain from signaling. And choosing not to signal is itself a signal.
It’s silly to stigmatize signaling. Or use it as a pejorative.
Cheap talk, or cheap signals—that’s a different story.
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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.
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.