Subtle Signals

Here is a great example of signaling and screening:

The rock supergroup Van Halen had a clause in their concert contracts that stipulated that the band would “be provided with one large bowl of M&M candies, with all brown candies removed”. Once the “M&Ms” story leaked to the press, social commentators jumped all over it as an egregious example of the pampered and spoiled behavior that rock artists demanded. … [But] the band put the “no brown M&Ms” clause in their contracts for a very good reason. …

The band kept noticing errors (sometimes significant errors) in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in. The band put a clause smack dab in the middle of the technical jargon of other riders: “Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”. That way, the band could simply enter the arena and look for a bowl of M&Ms in the backstage area. … A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract. (more; HT Phil Maymin)

This example also shows how hard it can be to collect solid evidence for signaling theories. If we didn’t have the evidence of band members explaining their reasons, how long would it take to guess this reason, and how much other evidence would one have to collect to convince skeptical observers? Because we are often trying to be subtle with our signals, it can be hard to convince skeptical observers that much signaling is actually going on.

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  • michael vassar

    But this is an example of apparent status signaling behavior actually being the demand that others provide a hard to fake signal of something other than status.

    I’d call it a win for signaling models of human behavior but a loss for status signaling models.

  • Scott Messick

    Yes, this does nicely illustrate why people tend to give blank, unimpressed looks when told about signaling theories. There’s rarely direct evidence and particular examples are hard to sell because one can never be sure of them. It’s hard to get the message across that signaling theories explain so much behavior with so few assumptions.

  • David C

    I wonder what the Foo Fighters are signaling with their rider.

  • Very cool illustration.

  • Max

    I am sceptical of signalling theories because it seems like they can explain too much: for almost any behaviour, you can cook up some explanation in terms of signalling. This says to me that these theories suffer from “model fitting” and have little *predictive* value.

    What are the hard tests you can do to establish that signalling is the correct explanation for some observed behaviour, as opposed to alternative? Are there any general rules?

    • Scott Messick

      This sounds just like the issue with evolutionary psychology, doesn’t it? I think the problem is that not every signaling explanation for a given behavior is correct. A signaling explanation–like any other kind–lives or dies on how probable is the motive it ascribes to the behavior, and whether or not the behavior is indeed a good way to fulfill the motive, relative to obvious alternatives. In short, whether it’s the simplest explanation that fits the facts. The crux of it is that signaling explanations have the power to simply explain many otherwise-befuddling behaviors.

      Like with evolutionary psychology, “hard” tests are hard to come by. (Which I think was the point of this post.) But I will say that since learning about signaling theories, I have caught myself in the act of trying to send surreptitious signals, part of what convinced me of their correctness.

  • John

    I’m not sure I understand your position. Doesn’t every field attempting to explain human behavior “cook up some explanation in terms of”… some constant? Economics: “it’s about incentives!” Anthropology: “it’s about culture!” Sociology: “it’s about class!” A “Signaling Studies” professor would probably say “it’s about looking good!”

    It certainly makes sense to believe that some of these lenses have more explanatory power than others, and they’re all just models and oversimplifications, but I’m just not sure why the fact that many different human behaviors make sense in terms of “trying to look good to others” counts against the theory of signaling.

    • John

      Oops, this was meant as a reply to Max’s comment directly above mine.

  • nazgulnarsil

    he’s accusing it of being non-falsifiable.

  • Douglas Knight

    Since people rarely admit to signaling, for such theories to be true, people must either be lying or unconscious of their behavior. A conscious example does not provide much evidence for unconscious explanations of other examples. They seem to me likely to be quite different. The unconscious mind seems to me unlikely to make the connection between reading for detail and safety, while it is more likely to understand social status.

    In particular, many people are involved in school. If it were just a few, they could all be lying about their conscious understanding of it as a signaling game, but there are enough that I think very few could consciously view it that way. Thus I do not think this example lends much support for school as a rational signaling game.

    But it does lend support to examples run by smaller groups.

    Also, in the example, the employers understand the signaling nature of the exercise, but the employees do not. To compare to the school example, only the employers of graduates need to understand the game, while the students do not need to understand why they enroll in school. Still, I think the number of employers is too big for them to consciously understand it as a signaling game.

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