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Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signaling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signaling theory have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signaling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons we think.
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In the moral domain, runaway signaling happens when people try to elevate their moral status by doing and believing things that not everyone else does. For example, everyone is opposed to killing humans: saying that you think people should not kill each other does not set you apa...
Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness...
A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the orna...
Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But...
Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-ter...
Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral ...
A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions.
Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless?
Why do employers care that...
So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake; but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we not very good (or especially conce...
In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signaling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents (“My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signa...
Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changin...
As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their...
When we see someone virtue signalling, we often have strong reactions – sometimes admiration, sometimes annoyance or contempt. But these intuitions are the product of psychological mechanisms that are designed to help us evaluate if that person could be a good friend or a good ally, n...
The tale of Mark and Bob illustrates one of the bleak insights of signalling theory: the concrete impact of an altruistic act (how much it actually helps other people) is often dissociated from the signal it sends about what kind of person we are. This means that, to convince people that ...
Mark and Bob both made a $1,000 donation to a charity. Before making his donation, Mark read extensively about different charities, seeking the one with the best ROI – the charity that runs programmes with the most impact on people’s lives per dollar invested. In the process of his search, Mark w...
In addition to fostering coordination, common knowledge prevents people from hiding behind the veil of plausible deniability. To get away with selfish behaviour, we often pretend to ignore its consequences. If you can plausibly say that you didn’t know about the poor wor...
Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the street to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete strang...
This is probably why we find virtue signalers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefit...
Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere “virtue signaling”. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little.
In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point.
Their argument is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully lo...
Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows ...
In sum, virtue signalling can be a powerful force for social change, by creating common knowledge around a moral issue that people would otherwise ignore (out of complacency or selfishness).
Importantly, this works even when there is no guarantee the people who are ...
When individuals send signals to try to convince others that they are better than average, the result is often what signalling theorists call a ‘runaway’: an arms race toward more and more extreme signals. If peahens want to mate with the peacocks whose tails are more extravagant...
Why might people be motivated to send extreme signals of their commitment to a cause? The answer lies in the fact that, when we send virtue signals, many of the things we seek – such as friends and social status – are rival goods. The people you want to be friends with can have o...
Mark’s donation will make a much greater impact on people’s lives. But he comes off as cold and calculating, and we can’t repress a nagging doubt about the kind of person he is. Would he still have donated if he had found that none of the organisations he read about was effective enough? Bob by c...
Bob was watching TV one evening when he saw an ad for a charity that gives teddy bears to convalescent children in hospitals. Bob was overwhelmed by emotion at the plight of the children, and immediately made a transfer to the charity.
Viewing morality as a coordination game suggests that public opinion can undergo rapid shifts, as society coordinates on new moral norms. And this is indeed what we observe: public opinion on a variety of subjects – such as racism and gay rights – has shifted dramatically in a progressive...
Why do we scold virtue signalers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they ...
Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the co...
The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion.
But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voic...
Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid ...
So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable sign...
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
“Here we go again, with your mixed signals and my second thoughts.”
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