How Social Are Signals?

We are aware that do many things for show, and I often suggest that we do such “signaling” more often than we realize. But while I’m eager to see writings on signaling theories and their empirical support, I’ve come to suspect that most tend to be unrealistically asocial. Let me explain.

In the iconic signaling story, one person has a hidden feature, which they choose to show to one other person, via some visible action. For example, on Valentine’s day a man traditionally buys a gift, writes a poem, etc. to show a women the strength of his feelings for her. The bigger the gift, the bigger his feelings, supposedly.

In this iconic situation, only these two parties matters. And this allows for simple sharp predictions. For example, if the person watching can’t see the signal, or already knows about the feature, there is no point in signaling. And there is no point in taking an action A to show feature F if that feature is unrelated to willingness to do A.

In realistic signaling, however, third parties typically matter a lot more. For example, the man might want to signal that other women want him, or that he knows that other men want her. The woman might care less about what she infers from his signal, and more about being able to let slip details to her friends, to show them the kind of man she has. This inclusion of a wider social circle makes it harder to find simple sharp tests.

I’ve talked about how schooling could be such a more social signal, and how that could complicate empirical testing:

Firms want to impress customers, suppliers, investors, etc. with the quality of their employees, and hiring graduates from prestigious schools helps them signal such quality. Hiring such graduates can also help a manager to impress his bosses, potential employees, and sister divisions about the quality of his employees. … The fact that attending school seem to cause changes in students that employers are willing to pay for does not show that school isn’t all about signaling. (more)

Similarly, people often respond to my suggestion that medical care functions in large part to “show that you care” with the example of people buying medicine for themselves. “Surely that can’t be signaling,” they suggest. But consider that unattached women often buy themselves flowers or chocolates on Valentines day. As signals become more social, and involve wider circles, it gets harder to isolate situations where no signaling should happen.

By the way, one way to think about “status” is as the limit of very social signals. The more that an action or sign is generally seen as positive, without being very specific about what good features it indicates or who exactly cares about such features, the more that this action or sign looks like a signal of general social status.

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  • Miley Cyrax

    “But consider that unattached women often buy themselves flowers or chocolates on Valentines day. ”

    Bahaha. I can already see the PC crowd foaming at the mouth, ready to shriek “but not all women are [vain and vapid] like that!” or perhaps to utter their preferred brand of No True Scotsman, e.g. “no honorable woman would do something like that.” Perhaps they would even demand a peer-reviewed study on the phenomenon of women sending flowers or candy to themselves on Valentine’s Day.

    My respect went up for the boyfriends and husbands of women in my office who did not send flowers into the office this Tuesday, as it signaled their unwillingness to kowtow to the female entitlement or the female longing for attention/validation that are on full-blast on V-Day.

    I noticed that the more attractive women in my office actually received flowers at a lower frequency than did the merely okay looking ones–which may seem counterintuitive act first–but it is precisely this confidence and active indifference shown by the SOs of the more attractive women that keeps these women attracted to them.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    It seems to me that RH is showing that many phonomena that can be compatible with signalling, even if the mechanism is too complicated for them to be convincingly *explained* by it.

    To signalling theories similar to neuroscience in it’s relation to “The Poets” (why is my mental name for the amorphous mass of slightly annoying, romantic anti-sciencism). Neuroscience might discover all kinds of mechanisms behind anger, fear and mirth, but they will still be exactly the same emotions the The Poets have always talked about.

    Similarly signalling theories give rationales for human actions that The Poets might have said were beyond reason. But just because we have a rational justification doesn’t mean the poetic justification is invalidated. Indeed as we get into more elaborate, complicated and “social” signalling models, they seem to resemble more and more the poetic justifications.

  • J Storrs Hall

    Sounds like you need to find some eigenvalues.

  • http://www.killtenrats.com Zubon

    The woman might care less about what she infers from his signal, and more about being able to let slip details to her friends, to show them the kind of man she has.

    This is key. The flowers are not the gift. Delivering them to her workplace where all her co-workers can see is the gift.

  • justthinking

    The broader you make this story, the harder it is to separate signaling from consuming status goods. If it’s in the individual utility function, it’s not just signaling any more.

  • JTerry

    Robin,
    why do people seem to despise status as a motivation for action? Compared to other motivations it seems less “pure.”

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Status is a ranking from low to high.

      Status is purely zero-sum.

      To the extent that non-merit based things can be exchanged for status, the value of status as a signal of the merit of the person with that status is corrupted.

      This is the whole point of advertising, to get people to buy stuff they don’t need in the hope that they will attain status by virtue of their purchase.

      When everyone thinks that way, then you get a self-fulfilling status metric where money is the only thing that matters and the market is the only mechanism that confers status.

      • John Maxwell

        Status may actually be negative-sum; there is evidence for greater overall happiness in more egalitarian societies:

        http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/richard_wilkinson.html

        I know I have a strong preference for groups where status is distributed relatively equally. And the more a group’s social interactions are status-oriented, the more the group tends to remind me of high school.

      • http://twitter.com/EnigmaBabylon Enigmatic Babylonian

        Why can’t people see what kind of blatant nonsense is involved in saying ‘greater overall happiness’? Happiness is a qualitative, subjective experience. I am tempted to say it doesn’t even mean *anything*, and may as well be ‘God’ or ‘Flaurgstein’, given the way people use it with no coherent definition.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        I agree with you that happiness is often negative-sum, but status by definitiion is zero-sum because status is simply an ordered ranking.

        Everyone has a position on the status hierarchy, either it is higher or lower than someone else. To move up, someone else must move down (or off by dying).

        Happiness and wealth need not be zero-sum, but those who control wealth and want to use that wealth to attain status must strive to make wealth be zero or negative-sum so it retains zero-sum-like value to be used to acquire the true zero-sum of status.

      • Miley Cyrax

        daedalus2u,

        I agree. Status itself is zero-sum, which is why the collective pursuit of status is negative-sum, as it has a collective E(V) of 0 while extinguishing considerable time, effort, and resources.

        However, the pursuit of status can have positive externalities, such as greater societal productivity. Civilization itself could had even been the inadvertent by-product of arms-race status-jockeying, as men aimed to accrue status and resources via productivity to win female sexual access and to ensure enhanced fitness for their offspring.

      • http://twitter.com/EnigmaBabylon Enigmatic Babylonian

        I would guess that the point of advertising is that people do not carry around magical database supplies in their head and could not possibly be aware of the vast majority of products available.
        While people might buy products for status, and might infer from a commercial that the product is status-granting, to say that this is ‘the whole point of advertising’ borders on inanity.

  • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

    Similarly, people often respond to my suggestion that medical care functions in large part to “show that you care” with the example of people buying medicine for themselves. “Surely that can’t be signaling,” they suggest. But consider that unattached women often buy themselves flowers or chocolates on Valentines day. As signals become more social, and involve wider circles, it gets harder to isolate situations where no signaling should happen.

    There’s also the problem that some actions may be adaptation-for-status execution even if they not status-raising in a particular circumstance.

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