Signaling and countersignaling are hidden methods of communicating with each other.
We do it all the time as a way to “prove” we are who and what we claim to be.
We are constantly signaling. Every minute of the day, we send signals to others to convey that we are intelligent, successful, attractive, healthy, well-adjusted people with impeccable taste. We signal to our bosses, coworkers, partners, friends, family, strangers on the street—just about everyone. Usually, we can’t just tell people we have a particular positive quality. Talk is cheap and most people have no reason to believe us. We only rely on straightforward assertions when the stakes are low. Plus, there are few things less appealing than bragging. So instead of telling others who we are and how great we are, we use signals.
Signaling is the area where you live and the car you drive. It’s how you take your coffee and whether you drink alcohol or not. It’s the shoes you wear, the newspapers you read, how you spend your Friday nights. People aren’t slaves to signaling; we do have our own preferences. But we are constantly constrained by the impression we want to make. We make choices that signal what we wish to convey.
Signaling is the act of conveying information about ourselves to people in a way that is costly for us and therefore believable. Without the associated cost of sending a signal, we would not be able to trust the information being sent. For instance, if it’s easy to signal that we are amazing without actually being amazing, then the signal would be comparatively worthless and no one would pay attention to it. Thus, effective signals take up a lot of time and energy, but are essential as a means of communication because the information they convey is trustworthy.
Signaling is such a fundamental part of the way we function that failing to recognize it means we miss out on an additional layer of detail in the world. It explains many behaviors that might seem illogical—like why we pay so much for wedding rings, why open offices interfere with productivity, why the smartest people have the messiest handwriting, and why giving gifts is valuable even if it’s a waste of time and money.
By understanding signaling, we can get better at efficiently conveying the information we want others to pick up on. We can assess if what we’re signaling is really worth the effort. We can learn to better detect what other people are indicating to us—and if it’s genuine or just a show. In this post, we’ll look at the origins of signaling, how it works, some of the many ways we use it, and the situations in which it doesn’t work.
Examples of Signaling
“Today, depending on group norms and circumstances, status can be derived from factors as diverse as academic achievement, one’s skills as a sea turtle hunter, and even the ability to drink a lot of beer.” — The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology
Let’s take a look at some of the common instances of signaling you might see in your everyday life.
Advertising is rife with signals. Most ads are not really about espousing the positive qualities of a product or service. They might not even mention those at all. Instead, ads signal the kind of people a product is intended for—sending the message that buying it will further help signal their identity. There’s a big difference between a chocolate bar commercial that shows a bunch of college students partying on the beach and one that shows a working parent relaxing once their kids are in bed. When we stand in a shop or browse a website deciding which shampoo or coffee to buy, those advertising signals influence our decisions. We’re drawn to the products that signal they’re for people like us, and in turn, will signal our identities.
Another theory posits that companies use expensive advertising to signal confidence in their product. Your local plumber isn’t going to buy a Superbowl ad because they (rightly) don’t believe their service can earn enough money to justify it. A company that spends millions on a campaign, however, clearly thinks their product is good enough for it to be worthwhile. When we watch a costly advertisement, we pick up on that confidence and assume we’re looking at a high-quality product. In Principles of Economics, Volume 1, Gregory Mankiw writes, “In the signaling theory of advertising, the advertisement itself contains no real information, but the firm signals the quality of its product to consumers by its willingness to spend money on advertising… An action is being taken not for its intrinsic benefits but because the willingness to take that action conveys private information to someone observing it.”
Sociologists sometimes refer to the broken windows theory, which states that the visible effects of low-level crime, if unchecked, will send a signal that worse crimes are acceptable. The classic example is a neighborhood where an empty building has a broken window. If no one repairs it, it signals that no one is keeping an eye on the state of the neighborhood. Vandals might then break a few more windows or graffiti the building. People might start squatting in it. Things escalate and before anyone knows it, the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. As an old saying goes, if you let a camel poke its nose into the tent, you’ll end up with the whole camel sleeping in there. Small acts of negligence are significant if they act as signals.
Diego Gambetta and Heather Hamil write in Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Customers’ Trustworthiness that professional taxi drivers learn to pick up on the myriad ways prospective customers signal that they are safe to pick up. We’ve all heard numerous times about the risks of getting into a stranger’s car. But it’s easy to forget that the danger goes both ways. Letting a stranger get into your car is also a tremendous risk. Even in the age of apps like Uber, drivers often have far less information about passengers than the passengers have about the driver. Traditional drivers who collect passengers from street corners or phone calls have even less background knowledge.
The ability to read signals, then, is truly a life or death matter for taxi drivers. Gambetta and Hamil write, “For example, savvy drivers pick up passengers only at well-lit corners, not in dark alleys and savvy passengers go to safe places if they want to be picked up.” Unsafe passengers can and do mimic this behavior, but it carries a higher risk of them being seen or caught on CCTV getting into a taxi. The authors go on to write that “when asked, drivers often say their assessment of customers’ trustworthiness is driven by ‘gut feelings’ or ‘a sixth sense.’ Our expectation is that a logic underlies these feelings and that it consists of several cognitive steps, including an intuitive application of signaling theory.” If your profession involves any direct interactions with customers, you probably have an intuitive awareness of the signals that indicate if you can trust them or not.
With people we are not close to or have not known for long, we usually signal a desire to get along by ignoring any flaws or shortcomings and being polite. The psychiatrist Scott Alexander points out that we often countersignal the strength of an established relationship by doing the opposite. With close friends or long-term partners, it is common for us to make friendly jokes about flaws, or liberally use insults. We know the other person well enough to do this in a way that usually won’t cause genuine offence. We don’t need to signal affection, because it’s already established. They have enough prior information about us.
Honest and Dishonest Signaling
“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” ― Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata
We use signals because they are costly and therefore more believable than straightforward information. But that doesn’t mean all signals are “true”—they can be categorized as honest or dishonest. An honest signal means the signaler possesses the trait they claim. A dishonest one means they don’t. If a signal is easy to fake, it degrades the value of the trait it advertises. A picture of someone in a fancy car used to signal wealth. Now that we’ve all heard of people hiring expensive cars for a photo op, it just looks sleazy without other signals indicating they own it.
It is very hard, if not impossible, to fake experience. For example, you could lie about having gone to medical school, but one day in the ER or surgery would reveal you as a fraud. If it were possible to be deceptive about your experience without anyone finding out, everyone would do it all the time. On the whole, signals that are easy to fake soon die out.
“An effective use of countersignaling requires finesse. Most importantly, the countersignaller must already hold some independent air of mystique.” — Tyler Cowen, Discover Your Inner Economist
A multibillionaire casually admits to eating at McDonald’s for breakfast every day. A powerful CEO shows up at the office in jeans and a hoodie. A middle-class mother sends her child to school in a pajama shirt with unbrushed hair. A New York Times bestselling author says, “Oh, I write books,” when asked what they do at a dinner party. A supermodel posts a candid picture without makeup or filters online.
These are all examples of countersignaling; the act of signaling something by not signaling that thing. A jeans-wearing CEO doesn’t need to show up in a suit. Their status is already assured and they don’t need to dress in a way that encourages employees to respect them. Well-off parents don’t need to do battle to get their kids to look smart at school because, unlike less wealthy parents, they are not as worried about being judged as incompetent. We countersignal when we can afford not to make the effort required to signal.
To give some more examples from The Art of Strategy by Avinash K. Dixit, the most educated people often have the messiest handwriting, and the smartest students are sometimes unwilling to raise their hands and answer questions in class. Those who are secure in their reputations feel little need to defend themselves against minor slights. The most talented people may have no need for formal credentials to impress employers.
This is not to say that countersignaling is inherently dishonest or deliberate. It is, in fact, honest signaling. A person who signals their intelligence by making no effort to signal their intelligence may indeed be humble and uninterested in making others feel inadequate. A very wealthy person may avoid showing their wealth for their own safety and to try to prevent other people from asking them for money. A sought-after consultant may try to be hard to contact because they already have more work than they can handle and don’t want to go through the hassle of turning down more. But generally, the term refers to an intentional lack of signaling. It can be hard to distinguish from genuine humility.
The essence of countersignaling is that those who do it feel no need to signal. The value of countersignaling is that it frees up time, energy and resources. Signaling correctly is an endless, exhausting process where one slip-up can undo previous efforts. Countersignaling is the easier option because it doesn’t involve an active effort. We are most likely to countersignal when a given trait is obvious to any observer. A person moving into an expensive area may not feel the need to signal wealth to their neighbors, because it’s clear from the fact they live there. As Rory Sutherland puts it, “…there is a very big psychological difference between doing something by choice and doing the same thing through necessity.” When we countersignal, we don’t feel insecure or embarrassed about it because we’re in control.
In Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen cautions readers to be wary of sharing your good news with too many people, especially ones you want to impress:
Paradoxically, reporting good news can make a person look bad. If we look anxious to reveal good news, our listeners assume that we don’t come by good news very often. Or perhaps our listeners believe we consider the good news a stroke of marvelous luck. Did Michael Jordan need to tell his friends every time he scored thirty points in a game?
If someone hears our good news through the grapevine, they’re far more likely to be impressed. Clearly we must have so much good news that we don’t even bother sharing it!
“People who try to look smart by pointing out obvious exceptions actually signal the opposite.” — Naval Ravikant
Signaling is necessary in situations of information asymmetry. One party in a transaction—and it may not be an economic one, simply any exchange of value—has more information than the other. Countersignaling is more appropriate when parties have symmetrical information.
Economist George Akerlof explored how a lack of honest signaling can sustain information asymmetry and damage a marketplace in his 1970 paper, The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. Akerlof described the used car market, where vehicles fall into two loose categories, peaches (quality cars that function as expected) and lemons (cars with hidden flaws). It is incredibly difficult for the average buyer to figure out which category a prospective purchase falls into. There are few reliably honest signals that a car is a peach, while a lemon may show dishonest signals. So, buyers assume the worst. The result is a market where all cars are lemons, because dealers cannot appropriately price peaches. Luckily, this has changed since Akerlof’s time. We now have access to far more symmetrical information, both about individual vehicles and dealerships. With proper signaling, the market is more efficient. If this hadn’t occurred, the used car market could have disappeared altogether.
When we want to prompt another party to signal information we don’t currently possess, we take actions known as screening. We may not directly ask for it, but we encourage them to signal to us. If you ask the seller of a used car to give you a warranty, you’re not outright asking if it’s a lemon. You know that if it is, they won’t agree to it and you shouldn’t buy it. If they agree, that’s a pretty useful signal of the quality. Gregory Mankiw describes this as “an action taken by an uninformed party to induce an informed party to reveal information.” In the same way that markets find ways to screen products to ensure efficiency, we figure out means of screening the signals we receive from other people. A bouncer might ask someone their star sign to figure out if an ID is genuine. If someone claims they went to the same school as us, we might ask if they remember a certain teacher. A landlord might ask a prospective tenant for a deposit and first month’s payment upfront to indicate their ability to pay on time.
Signaling is not a static process in any situation—it’s always evolving.
Signaling in Biology
“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” ― John Steinbeck
The concept of signaling theory originated in biology. Animals constantly signal to other members of their species, such as prospective mates, and to other species, such as potential predators. This enables them to communicate a lot of information without using language in the sense we do. In particular, humans and many animals use signaling to attract mates, by indicating their genetic fitness.
The peacock’s tail has long been a source of confusion for biologists. Charles Darwin wrote that the very sight of a single feather left him nauseated. Why would any living being evolve such extravagant, unwieldy plumage? The colorful birds threw a wrench into the works of his theories. Eventually, Darwin realized that sexual selection has different requirements from more general natural selection. Animals don’t just need to survive; they also need to pass on their genes. This means they need ways of signaling their worthiness to members of the opposite sex that are costly enough to be meaningful. A peacock’s tail is exactly that. To survive with such unwieldy plumage, a bird must be strong, healthy and smart—a good mate. The grander its feathers, the more desirable it is. The same is true for many other seemingly illogical features animals possess. Biologist Amotz Zahavi christened this the handicap principle, based on the idea that animals signal through features that are not beneficial for their physical survival, just their genetic survival.
When gazelles and similar animals spot a predator creeping towards them, they don’t always display the flight behavior we might expect. Instead, they engage in a behavior known as “stotting”: they leap dramatically into the air, lifting all four feet at once in a display that uses up a lot of energy and does nothing to help the gazelle get away. It is believed that stotting may be a form of signaling to display to a predator that an animal is strong, healthy and not worth chasing. Pursuing a fast-moving gazelle requires a huge energy expenditure, so predators prefer to pick out elderly, and sick ones that move slower. Stotting sends the signal that a particular animal isn’t worth pursuing.
Some animals are brightly colored to attract mates. Other plants and animals use color for a purpose akin to that of stotting, warding off predators. Aposematism is the term for colors, markings, or other physical features that signal an animal is poisonous or otherwise dangerous if eaten. For example, coral snakes indicate their venom with bright bands of red and yellow or white on black which are easily spotted even from far away. Skunks and badgers have white stripes that serve as the opposite of camouflage and signal their efficient defense mechanisms. To be so visible and still survive, they must be capable of defending themselves. Other species may piggyback on this by mimicking features that signal defenses they don’t actually possess, saving themselves the effort of, for example, producing toxic venom. This is known as Batesian mimicry. If predators cannot tell the difference, they will leave potentially dangerous meals alone to be on the safe side. As with any effective form of signaling, brightly colored markings are costly to an animal—they make it harder for them to hide—which is why they are effective. As a general heuristic, the more conspicuous an organism is, the deadlier it is.
“Invention is the mother of necessity.” ― Thorstein Veblen
Conspicuous consumption is the practice of choosing to purchase goods and services for their capacity to signal wealth and thereby excite respect or envy in others, rather than for their practical value. Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen debuted the concept in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen noticed that the wealthiest people in society were eager to outright waste their money on useless purchases, purely for the status this would signal. Having the capacity to squander time and money was the ultimate signal of wealth during Veblen’s time, following the Industrial Revolution. The newly created leisure class suddenly had unprecedented wealth and opportunities for demonstrating it. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, conspicuous consumption was purely the domain of the very rich. Afterward, it was open to almost everyone and became a key part of the way we consume—with the need to signal becoming more important than utility in most of our purchases.
Key to conspicuous consumption is the Veblen good: an item that is coveted because it’s expensive. In a reversal of the traditional supply-demand curve, the higher the price, the greater the demand. Since high-quality items tend to be expensive, we often commit the logical fallacy of assuming all expensive items are of high quality. The value of Veblen goods is contingent on their efficacy as signals of wealth. Some Veblen goods are inherently scarce, which is the source of their value, even if they’re not objectively better than cheaper alternatives. Others aren’t scarce, just expensive.
Signaling in the Workplace
In Willing Slaves, Madeleine Bunting writes, “Many professionals in the public sector have come to the painful conclusion that they now have two tasks; to do their job and then to prove they’ve done it.” This is true in many workplaces in cultures that value overwork—people are incentivized to prioritize the appearance of hard work above all else. The result is deliberate efforts to signal productivity, no matter how counterproductive they prove to be for the company or the individual.
Open offices signal collaboration and productivity to investors or prospective hires. The sight of lots of people scuttling around in a bright, colorful space that hums with activity certainly signals positive qualities about a company. Never mind that it’s detrimental to nearly everyone, especially those on a maker schedule. Likewise, individuals in an office environment where they have no quiet space or privacy feel obligated to scurry around, without time to think, pause for lunch, or take a break. It’s all about looking busy, not about getting work done.
In so many offices being present is equated with working. The bigger and more chaotic the office, the more your actual productivity is obscured. Often, your only real solution to signaling your value is increasing your basic visibility. You may not be doing much—gossiping with colleagues, drinking endless cups of coffee, and taking long lunches—but you are physically present. You are signaling your desire to work and commitment to the company. Unfortunately, it would be better for you and your organization if you spent less time at the office, but with more of it being tangibly productive.
Meetings are another counterproductive signal. The assumption seems to be that the fuller your calendar is, the more important and valuable you are because everyone wants and needs to talk to you. In reality, however, meetings are often poorly run and their objectives are undefined. They are a waste of time, as they cut into the energy you have for learning, deliberate thinking, and actually producing something useful.
Signaling is a hidden dimension of the way we communicate. It crosses the barriers of language, culture, even species. We intuitively learn how to read the signals we encounter in our everyday lives. Being aware of signaling can help us better grasp the information we’re receiving and become more discerning about dishonest signaling or countersignaling. We also need to be aware of what we ourselves are signaling, not just what we’re saying. We can’t just expect to be believed. We need to consider our signals.