Who Signals Least?

How can we learn to see our signaling more clearly? That is, how can we learn to see what our behavior would be like if we had not evolved to show off, but had still evolved to achieve the other non-show-off functions of our behavior?

Some suggest we look at folks who are alone, but isolation was pretty rare for our distant ancestors, most interesting behaviors happen around others, and observers often give extra weight to the behavior of folks who expect to be alone.  Here is a more reliable clue:

[In] standard one-dimentional signaling models, … signaling incentives distort actions most for the best agents, and *not at all* for the worst agents.

In a standard game-theoretic signaling separating equilibrium, each person sees their hidden one dimensional ability A, and then chooses a one-dimensional effort E(A). These together determine a visible one-dimensional performance P(A,E(A)). Knowing the equilibrium behavior E(A) of the game, observers can then infer a person’s ability A from his performance P. The fact that others observe one’s performance usually induces extra effort E, which contributes to the waste of signaling.

In such an equilibrium, the people with the lowest possible ability A know they can’t gain by pretending to be any other type, and know that even doing their best they will be revealed to others to be of the worst type. So they know they might as well choose zero extra effort, and make their choice ignoring signaling incentives. If everyone is going to know you are lazy, you might as well put your feet up and relax; if everyone thinks you terribly ugly, why bother with makeup?

This is of course only a model; the real world isn’t exactly like this.  But I suspect its conclusion is robust: the behavior of those who send worst signals are the least influenced by signaling distortions. So if you want to see what humans look when they are not trying to impress, even unconsciously, look at the worst folks.

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  • Half Sigma:

    But one thing for which proles should actually get some respect is that they are non-conformists. Proles can just wear whatever they want without worrying about whether it’s an outfit officially approved by society. The higher a person’s social class, the more they conform to their class roles.

  • Some cynics belong to such understood “worst folk” category. They are very bad at telling pretty lies (i.e. telling such lies in a way that would make them believable requires a lot of effort for them), so instead they choose to be brutally honest. Other times though, cynicism is just another form of unconscious signaling (mainly signaling that you’re smart). An interesting question would be under what circumstances is cynicism a signal and under what is it simply a lack of effort.

  • Sean

    I like this, but I wonder how well we can separate (e.g.) the media consumed by low-IQ vs. high-IQ people as being due to signaling differences versus differences in ability and corresponding preferences.

    Maybe we should also look at others who have relatively little incentive to signal (e.g. old women with few remaining years of life and no chance to produce further offspring)?

    Are all these groups similar? If not why not?

  • Ken

    Your model is sound, and you probably know Akerlof’s work a heck of a lot better than I do, but don’t the boundary conditions of the model limit its generalizability? The conditions I identify are:

    1. The payoff for either trying harder to develop a genuine ability or somehow counterfeiting a higher level of ability isn’t worth the effort it would take.

    2. The quality/ability can’t be effectively counterfeited, even temporarily (there is no information asymmetry).

    Professional and high-reward, high-visibility amateur sports are an example (although I reckon it can also be argued that the restricted sample, representing the most able rather than the entire population, skews the observations). Players cheat, take roids and HGH, engage in blood doping, and all manner of such like things.

  • This seems to imply a pretty shallow view of signalling; as if its something we can just turn off.This seems to imply a pretty shallow view of signalling; as if its something we can just turn off. I think rather that it’s fundamental to being a human being. Even the lowest of the low in status terms engage in status, identity, and signalling games:

    Thus far, we have elaborated how some of the homeless distance themselves from other homeless individuals, from general and specific roles, and from the institutions that deal with them. Such distancing behavior and talk represent attempts to salvage a measure of self-worth. In the process, of course, the homeless are asserting more favorable personal identities.

    • lior

      He didn’t say “who doesn’t signal,” just “who signals least.”

  • Philo

    “[H]ow can we . . . see what our behavior would be like if we had not evolved to show off, but had still evolved to achieve the other non-show-off functions of our behavior?” This is a confused question, because “showing off” (signaling) is a very important means by which we achieve our various objectives–that is why we evolved to do it!

  • tal

    Isn’t our status most important to us among those we view as peers? If people are the worst at something that their peers also among the worst at, it seems like such people would still try to signal to influence the pecking order among their peers. So, should we only look at people who are clearly the worst at something but whose peers are not among the worst?

    • Ken

      Tal, I think you’re on to something, and not only with social peers, but (going back to Akerlof again) actual or potential exchange partners.

  • Off-topic, but this quote from Daniel Ellsberg on what access to top-secret info does to your evaluation of the opinions of the non-cleared fits well with this blog’s theme of the rationality of disagreement.

  • JS Allen

    Periodically doing the exact opposite of signalling, when signalling would be most expected and profitable, is a great way to signal trustworthiness. Doing this properly is very tricky.

  • vozworth

    signal to noise us but why one should read the comments, I comment to signal, yet my comments are noise about the original signal.

    -regular reader, rarely comment, and reads the comments..

  • Indy

    Cicero’s essay “On Friendship” (“De amicitia”, chapter 98).

    “Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt” which means, “Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so”.

    “Esse Quam Videri”, “Actually being, rather than only seeming to be”, being the common abbreviation for the concept.

  • This makes sense to me for any one dimensional case, but it still makes it difficult to imagine a human who signals nothing since when one conserves their signaling energy in one area it will be to use it in another. Even the least successful in society compete fiercely, in their own way. Even those who give up completely at everything and decide to do themselves in often signal in the very act of doing themselves in.

    Only the mentally retarded seem to fail completely at signaling, in which case we are looking at a mutant class.

  • Grant

    OK, but what about signals which aren’t easily verified? In most social situations (especially men dating), people show off in a variety of ways which aren’t verifiable. Do you really think most of people’s signaling will be eventually verified? In my view the vast majority never will. Many unverified false claims seem to be widely known to be false.

    In these cases the signaling games seem to reward meta-signalers: people who signal they are good at signaling by being full of shit and getting away with it. Given how important signaling is to an individual’s success, it does make sense for some people to respect the ability to meta-signal.

    Of course sometimes people’s claims are easily verifiable, but even then asking them to verify their claims is often seen as rude. I participate in activities with clear measures of performance, and even then most people refrain from discussing how well they’ve done, instead using vague terms for their performance and the performance of others.

    It makes sense for those of us who are gifted at doing but not showing off to choose more verifiable claims. It also makes sense for those who are good at showing off but not doing to choose less verifiable claims. Can we infer something about a person’s ability from the verifiability of the claims they make?

    • Ken

      Exactly, Grant. You’ve defined the condition of information asymmetry to a nicety (A knows his signal is actually BS, but it will take B a while to figure it out).

  • Eccentrics might be a way of getting some information about people who put less effort into signaling than most.

  • Hyena

    Doesn’t this confuse “signaling behavior” with “behavior”? Even if we spent all our time signaling, it’s not true that jokes aren’t funny, some YouTube videos aren’t amazing, music has never been good, etc. It’s also not clear that all signals would count: people signaling their appreciation doesn’t need to confer status, it could simply signal whether something succeeded.

    People who are very bad at things not only don’t signal, they don’t do much of anything at all. It seems more likely that if the social status motive were switched off, and so people stopped doing things for that reason, the only real change is that what people do would become somewhat less predictable.

  • Anonymous

    Good god, you people must be extremely dumb to discuss such meaningless and worthless things in such great detail.
    Shutup and poast sum CP.

  • Anonymous

    Also, moderation.