Self-portrait in a convex mirror: Signaling and the meaning of behavior

by Joseph Shieber

1. One of the descriptions often used by proponents of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (henceforth IDW) to describe the views of the supposed shibboleths they’re critiquing is “virtue-signaling”.

There are a few problems with the use of the term “virtue-signaling” as a critique. Indeed, a number of those problems have been observed by some who might otherwise agree with at least some of the positions espoused by IDW adherents (e.g., Sam Bowman here).

Here are three of those problems with the notion of “virtue-signaling”. The first is that the term is a misnomer — that it’s a misapplication of the notion of “signaling”. Call this the MISAPPLICATION argument. The second is that it unjustly implies that those to whom it’s applied are being intentionally disingenuous — or even dishonest. Call this the UNJUST argument. The third is that the propensity of IDW adherents to characterize the actions of those that they criticize as “virtue-signaling” is itself an instance of signaling, and criticizable on equivalent grounds. Call this the HYPOCRISY argument.

I appreciate all three of these arguments, but I want to raise a different issue with using the notion of “signaling” as a lens with which to analyze behavior.

In order to do that, though, it’ll be helpful to look at the MISAPPLICATION, UNJUST, and HYPOCRISY arguments in a bit more detail. And to do that, we need to look a bit more at the notion of signaling.

2. In evolutionary biology and economics, signaling is a form of communication that generally conveys accurate information about some trait of the communicator.

The reason why signaling is important is because there are many interactions in which the participants only have imperfect information about each other.

Here’s an example.

Suppose I’m a female peacock — a peahen, if you will — and I have an interest in choosing as a mate the fittest peacock. Of course, being a peahen, I can’t just ask peacocks to submit their genetic profiles for selection. What’s a choosy peahen to do?!

According to Amotz and Avishag Zahavi’s handicap principle, now widely accepted in evolutionary biology, one way that the choosy peahen can find a particularly fit peacock mate is to look for a peacock with an exaggerated, ornamental tail.

The reason for this might initially seem a bit counterintuitive. It’s that only a particularly fit peacock could survive in the wild despite being handicapped by such an awkward, cumbersome appendage as a long, ornamental tail. The tail serves as a signal — a generally accurate indicator — of fitness, precisely because only a fit peacock could afford to have such a ridiculous tail.

So in order for something to serve as a signal, it’s important that it be costly. If the tail didn’t require the peacock to expend a great deal of resources, then less fit peacocks could also employ the tail as a strategy to attract a mate: the extravagance of the tail would no longer serve as a reliable indicator of overall reproductive fitness.

But now it’s possible to appreciate the MISAPPLICATION argument against the notion of “virtue-signaling”. The problem is that the actions that members of the IDW criticize as instances of virtue-signaling are not costly; they’re cheap and easy. It’s not difficult or particularly costly to send out a tweet or post something to Facebook that criticizes some person or action that every member of your social circle is also criticizing.

3. The MISAPPLICATION argument, then, suggests that the actions typically labeled as instances of “virtue-signaling” aren’t signaling at all. Instead, they’re simply cases of showing-off.

Suppose, though, that you think that virtue-signaling doesn’t simply involve showing-off in front of your social circle. Perhaps you think that virtue-signaling involves engaging in behavior that the person doing the signaling knows, in their heart of hearts, to be ridiculous. Furthermore, the person knows, again in their heart of hearts, that society at large sees that behavior as ridiculous as well.

Suppose, for example, you think that somebody is tweeting obvious, practically Orwellian falsehoods — “True is False!”, “Up is Down”, “Hot is Cold!” — all in the name of demonstrating their group allegiance.

Now this would at least potentially be an example of signaling. Appearing ridiculous, spewing obvious falsehoods as if they were truths, is costly — to one’s reputation if not to one’s own self-image. So if this is how you think of the actions of those who engage in virtue-signaling, then it would be appropriate to think of that behavior as genuinely virtue-SIGNALING.

The problem with this understanding of virtue-signaling, however, is that it involves attributing an incredible amount of duplicitousness and bad faith to those that one accuses of engaging in virtue-signaling, understood in this way.

Here’s how Sam Bowman underscores the problem with this way of understanding the charge of virtue-signaling:

It comes from an underlying assumption that the world is straightforward and your views are obviously correct. … But it’s possible to disagree honestly and sincerely about complicated questions with lots of different moving parts. … Accusing others of virtue signaling encourages you to not interrogate your own beliefs. If you think people only disagree with you because they’re trying to show off how nice they are to their mates, why would you even consider that what’s obvious to you might actually be wrong? As well as being rude and stupid, [accusing others of] virtue signaling gives people another mental shortcut to dogmatism.

But now it’s easy to see why this application of the notion of “virtue-signaling” to others is unjust. Why assume that you’re the only one to be arguing in good faith and that your views are not only correct, but obviously correct — so obviously correct, that only duplicitousness or bad faith could explain why someone would fail to agree with you? This is the basis of the UNJUST argument against the accusation of virtue-signaling.

4. And what about the fondness for using the term “virtue-signaling”? That fondness is prevalent among supporters of the IDW and critics of so-called “social justice warriors”. The term is used often indiscriminately, with little regard for the specifics of the case to which it’s applied — in other words, with little regard for truth. Perhaps those who apply the term “virtue-signaling” so liberally are themselves signaling — indicating their allegiance to the group of social justice opponents and self-appointed iconoclasts who identify with the IDW.

It’s this set of observations that are at the root of the HYPOCRISY argument. It’s the idea that those who too liberally apply the epithet of “virtue-signaling” to their intellectual opponents are themselves signaling, and are therefore guilty of the very behavior that they criticize in others.

5. Now, one way to avoid the UNJUST and HYPOCRISY arguments would be to apply a sort of “both-sidesism” to oneself. Employing this strategy, the critic of “virtue-signaling” would acknowledge that he himself is guilty of signaling too — indeed, he might point out, we all are! This is no reason, however, not to call attention to cases of signaling in one’s opponents. The goal, after all, is greater reflection about and understanding of our own reasons and motives.

Robin Hanson, who has thought deeply about many of these issues, seems to think of signaling in this way. Hanson characterizes signaling as involving the following features:

1. It is not sent mainly via the literal meanings of words said.

2. It is not easily or soon verifiable.

3. It is mainly about the senders’ personal features, perhaps via association with groups.

4. It is about sender “quality” dimensions where more is better, so senders want others to believe quality is as high as possible, while others want to assess more accurately. Such qualities are not just unitary, but can include degrees of loyalty to particular allies.

What about the requirement that signals must be costly? It seems to me that Hanson thinks that the costliness of the signal will be entailed by the fourth feature (perhaps in combination with the second?):

Cheap talk cannot send a message like this; one cannot just say such a thing, one must show it. And since it cannot be verified, one must show it indirectly, via how such features make one more willing or able to do something. And since willingness and ability track costs, these are “costly” signals.

Most importantly for us now: on Hanson’s view, signaling is omnipresent. He writes that,

when weighted by how much the messages matter to us, and by how much effort we put into adjusting them, I’d say that most of our communication is “signaling” of this sort. Most of the private value, if not most of the bits.

6. We’ve now come to a place in the discussion where it seems as if signaling is everywhere. All of our behavior, according to Hanson, involves signaling, to a greater or lesser degree. So we’re now in a position to understand the core, underlying issue involved in using the notion of “signaling” as a lens through which to analyze behavior — our own and others’.

The problem that I see is this. Focusing on signaling can blind you to the fact that the signaling-explanation for a particular behavior — even if that explanation is a genuine explanation of the behavior — doesn’t mean that the meaning of the behavior is exhausted by the meaning of the signal.

Return to Hanson’s list of the features of signals. Note that the very first criterion is that the signal “is not sent mainly via the literal meanings of words said”. Now, once you focus on the phenomenon of signaling, you could be misled into thinking that the signal is the genuine meaning underlying a certain behavior — it’s what’s hidden, what takes work to uncover, so it must be what’s really important. And it’s a short step from there to thinking that the only real meaning is the signal.

7. I’m guilty of this myself. If you think back to how I described the choosy peahen’s situation, I described her as attempting to choose on the basis of which potential peacock mate possesses optimal general reproductive fitness.

Now, I don’t want to presume to speak for peahens here, but my guess is that – from their own perspective – what they themselves think they’re using as a basis for selecting a potential mate is which peacock tail plumage they find most impressive and attractive.

In other words, even though the peacock’s extravagant plumage is a signal of general reproductive fitness, the peahen isn’t consciously responding to the signal. Rather, she’s a connoisseur of impressive tail feather displays; that’s what she admires, and that’s the criterion on which she’s choosing.

What thinking in terms of signals can blind us to is the fact that the surface narrative and the deeper, signaling-based explanation can both be correct.

The peacock’s tail plumage really is colorful, beautiful, and impressive. The peahen really does choose the peacock whose plumage she finds most attractive.

All of that is compatible with the fact that the peacock’s extravagant plumage is a signal of overall reproductive fitness, and with the fact that it’s the reproductive fitness explanation that explains why peacocks have such elaborate plumage in the first place.

8. In fact, it seems to me that the surface meaning might well — at least in some cases — contribute in an essential way to the communication of the deeper, signal-meaning. The peacock’s tail is genuinely striking. The musician is truly good, the painter truly talented, the comedian truly funny, the brilliant physicist truly brilliant.

(And if you think that once I moved from talking about peacocks to humans that I was still only talking about MALE musicians, painters, comedians, or physicists, then … THAT’S on you. Shame on you.)

Suppose that the omnipresent signaling hypothesis is true. Once you recognize that the prevalence of signaling is compatible with other forms of meaning as well, then you can appreciate that the move to criticize others’ behavior as a form of signaling is really nothing more than a version of the ad hominem fallacy. Even vain, shallow, or otherwise unpleasant people can make good arguments. Even if it’s all signaling, still it’s not ALL signaling.

If the lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him. But if the peacock could talk, he’d say, “It may be signaling, but damn if it isn’t beautiful!”