[Most of this stuff is plagiarized]

Example 1: Catholic devotion

Suppose you’re a Catholic who wishes to signal your commitment to Catholicism for whatever reason (maybe stronger commitment gets you more respect). One thing you could do is refrain from murder since this is an important Catholic doctrine. However, this is an extremely weak signal. Why? Because the costs of refraining from murder are very low, whether you are a Catholic or not. If, however, you refrain from using a condom, that is a strong signal of Catholicism. Why? Because those with weak commitment or no commitment to Catholicism, and so do not believe so strongly in the immorality of condoms, regard the net costs from refraining from using a condom as significantly higher.


This is called signalling.

Signaling is defined as “a method of conveying information among not-necessarily-trustworthy parties by performing an action which is more likely or less costly if the information is true than if it is not true”. Some signaling is performed exclusively to impress others (to improve your status), and in some cases isn’t even worth that. In other cases, signaling is a side-effect of an otherwise useful activity.

To construct a theory based on signalling you need two key ingredients:

  1. an unobservable trait that, if observable, would be rewarded
  2. an observable action (or set of actions) which is expected to be less costly the more of the unobservable desirable trait you possess

That is, the trait to be signalled (1) and the signal itself (2).

Example 2: Social Justice

Another example is social justice advocacy. The unobservable trait in question is fairly obvious: the strength of devotion to social justice causes. Anyone who observes mainstream culture today understands that there is a social premium on being perceived to be supportive of social justice. To be more in favour of social justice is to be more moral and more respectable in today’s Western society, to obtain a higher position in an informal moral hierarchy. Even if many people dislike social justice advocates, if the advocates themselves regard their strength of belief as a virtue, they will try to signal it. Simply saying that you’re committed to leftist causes counts for nothing because almost anyone can do that—so signalling is required. That’s ingredient (1).

Ingredient (2) is less obvious. I believe the signal is simply the positions social justice advocates take. It seems plausible to me that many things that social justice advocates believe many people would find unpleasant to believe. Examples of this are the idea that the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson were a good thing and that whites should pay reparations to nonwhites.

Take the case of police shootings of black Americans, which has received a lot of media attention recently. If “social justice” were the goal of social justice activists, you’d expect them to focus their energies on cases where the evidence against the police is strongest. However, the signalling theory predicts the opposite. The stronger the evidence against the police, the more likely someone weakly committed to social justice (or not committed to social justice at all) will side against the police. Therefore the signal being sent is weakest in those cases. The signal is in fact strongest when the evidence against the police is weakest.

A case study in this is to compare the Michael Brown shooting with the death of Eric Garner. In the case of Michael Brown, all the evidence available supported officer Darren Wilson’s story. The Michael Brown case caused riots and received much longer and more intense coverage than the Garner case.

More generally, if “black lives matter” was really about protecting black lives, you’d think they’d be concerned that more black Americans are killed due to sneakers alone than are killed by police. You’d also think they’d be concerned about the so-called Ferguson effect. However, from a signalling perspective, both of these blind spots make perfect sense. Everyone can see that deaths over sneakers and another black-on-black crime is bad, and it’s precisely for this reason that it’s ignored—it’s a weak signal.

Example 3: Cults

My mother is in a cult which was recently banned by the Catholic Church, and so I have experienced first hand the effects of signalling. Most cults are based on an unobservable virtue like faith. There are however observable actions which cannot be undertaken with ease if you are a non-believer or a moderate (e.g. mind-numbing chants). Cults through means like ostracization, shame and fear punish the moderates who do not exhibit signalling behaviors. The cults also bestow status and respect on those who do signal more. The combination of punishment and reward for doing difficult deeds signalling unobservable virtues can be used to mobilize people in any direction.

Example 4: Quackery

Fraudulent medical practitioners often make treatment efficacy a consequence of commitment in the treatment. They also offer observable actions one can engage in to signal your commitment. These observables are often very difficult or cause unease to someone who is not committed. So in order to signal commitment, the patient engages in very difficult activities. Some have even died seeking such a status of a committed patient to a quack.

My state of mind

I have been part of these groups that engage in arduous observable signalling as a proof of an unobservable virtue. My experience was that I was never bestowed with respect in such groups even when I signalled correctly. So I stay in groups with observable merit e.g. programming.

In fact, I am so averse to unobservable virtues than I even stay away from traditionally stable systems like marriage which are no longer based on observable economic necessity, but based on one’s unobservable commitment to virtues like tradition, romance and love which require observable signalling through pretentious gestures.


One thought on “Signalling

  1. Pingback: Outliers (#25)

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