Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What Signalling Feels Like

Guest-written by Sisi Cheng.

Background: Eric Anderson suggested a post on what signalling feels like from the inside. Awesome idea! I've never explicitly practiced noticing myself signalling, but Sisi has. Most of this post is her work, and it opens in her voice.

At one point, I asked John if I could change my facebook profile photo to a couple-y shot of the two of us. I came up with all sorts of reasons: my old profile photo has been there for ages and it’s getting boring to look at; it’d be a good opportunity for us to go out and take a nice photo of us two...etc. In retrospect, all of these reasons were just excuses. The real reason was I wanted to signal that I was in a happy relationship.

It’s not wrong a priori to use a couple-y photo as your facebook profile picture. However, you may make very different choices in profile photos if you intend to signal a happy relationship vs. post a generic good shot of you. Understanding your motivations fully and realizing your intention to signal is important to optimizing your choices. This post focuses on what signaling is, what unintentional signaling feels like from the inside, and tips on how to spot it in yourself. This will help you realize when you’re unintentionally signaling, allowing you to make decisions like: a). Do I actually want to be signaling this? And b). Either stop signaling or signal more effectively.

What is Signaling?

Before we can spot signaling behavior, we need a better idea of what signaling is, psychologically. There are two main underlying factors in signaling: status and identity. Any signaling may include one or both of these factors, in varying amounts.


Using a couple-y facebook profile photo is a good example of signaling one’s status. Having a good, healthy relationship is a classic status symbol. I look around facebook and see that many of my friends have posted couple-y photos or updates from their happy relationships. I feel the need to one-up them (or at least match them) by showcasing my own happy relationship. A public visible photo feels a bit like having the last word in an argument, or a socially acceptable way to show off. Much of signaling is related to aspects of status, be it wealth, career success, marital happiness, or knowledge. Signaling is a way we establish our places on the social ladder and our positions in our friend circles.


Continuing with the theme of facebook profile photos, another time, I considered changing it to a group shot of me and my friends from work having fun at a party. I was unintentionally signaling a part of my identity: me as a member of my work group. Every time someone likes that photo, or every time I see it as I wander around on Facebook, it asserts that I’m part of a team. I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside every time I log in and am reminded of how well I fit-in with my colleagues. It feels good to have a well-defined in-group identity. It gives a sense of belonging and purpose. Often, signaling achieves such an effect by echoing a part of your identity, whether it be a relationship, a personality type, or a social group.

Like the above examples have shown, signaling is not inherently right or wrong. We just want to be aware of our underlying motivations so we have the opportunity to either stop it or do it with more efficiency. In my examples above, after much introspection and consideration, I decided against the couple-y profile photo because I felt it reinforced my relationship as part of my identity, and my desire to not have that effect outweighed the benefits of signaling my status of happily in a relationship. However, I decided to go for the coworker group shot, because I believed the sense of belonging with my colleagues can promote my happiness at work and boost my productivity. One can easily imagine that having made this decision to signal, I might optimize it by rallying several of the coworkers in the photo to all change their facebook profile photo to the same picture, amplifying the in-group identity.

How to spot unintentional signaling in yourself

Now that we understand the underlying factors to signaling, we’re ready for some self-reflection. A key to realizing you’re signaling is to understand your motivations. If you take a moment to examine your motivations, unintentional signaling should feel confusing: you want something but your explanations for why you want it doesn’t quite feel right. As soon as you suspect you might be unintentionally signaling, you should ask yourself “why do I want to do this thing I feel like I want to do?” and be very critical of your own answers. Does the answer make sense? Does doing this thing accomplish what I say I want, and could other things accomplish my nominal goal much more efficiently? Or do I have an underlying real reason I haven’t admitted yet?

Let’s walk through an example by following my train of thoughts in a moment where I realized I was unintentionally signaling. A few weeks after the Trump election, my facebook feed was still exploding with highly-political posts from my friend circle. One evening when I had some downtime, I started browsing my facebook feed, and every time I saw someone post a leftwing political article or opinion, I felt the need to like it or leave a comment. It was natural; I liked a lot of my friends’ posts on facebook: baby pictures, funny cat videos, thought-provoking articles… But usually I only reacted to content I really enjoyed or resonated strongly with me. As I took a pause from the mass-liking, I realized that I didn’t even read through the entirety of the last few linked articles, so I clearly was no longer enjoying the contents anymore. The thought that I was unintentionally signaling now crossed my mind. But what was I signaling? It wasn’t just to signal that I have lots of friends I interact with regularly, because I was drawn to a particular post type. Aha, I was signaling my political affiliation and in-group status by displaying solidarity with my left wing friends. All this took a few seconds, after which I decided to stop signaling and go read a book instead.

Sometimes, when you’re immersed in unintentional signalling, it’s hard getting that first seed of suspicion. Often, you feel that you want to do this thing so strongly that you forget to question your motivations altogether. I find it helpful to look at common examples of what people do to signal and develop my intuition for recognizing these things in myself. So to get you started, John made this list of common examples of signalling behavior:
  • Correcting grammar or spelling in conversation, when you know what the other person intended to say. This is a typical example of signalling knowledgeability, and most other forms of pedantry fall in the same category.
  • Purchasing certain products. Apple and Converse are the canonical examples of signalling products, but it’s not just about branding - it could be unnecessarily large trucks or unnecessarily small smart cars, it could be any jewellry whatsoever, it could be eating at an upscale restaurant, it could be an apartment with a view… all sorts of things.
  • Political applause lights. These are things you metaphorically “cheer” or “applaud” in order to show in-group status. Up-voting political articles on facebook without reading them obviously falls under this category. Lots of boilerplate political rhetoric is also signalling; see this post for a few examples.
  • Friendship and/or affection. We already discussed a few examples in this area, but one thing we didn’t discuss was countersignalling: I call my friends by their first name, but I call my best friend “hey assface”. That level of abuse signals trust and respect just by being comfortable enough to use it.
  • Remember in high school, when the goody two shoes sat at the front of the classroom and the troublemakers sat at the back? That’s identity signalling - in this case, signalling a conscientious or rebel identity, respectively.
  • Anything “hipster” is high-proof, pure, manifest signalling. Hipsterdom is basically signalling raised to an independent art form.
  • Business suits or branded hoodies, depending on industry, are standard ways of signalling in-group status at job interviews.
  • Virtue signalling. Eating lots of fruit and vegetables, sorting your recycling, and volunteering with a charity are all really good ways of signalling virtue (and many political things also fall under this category). However, these are all terrible ways of actually achieving the things which they are nominally about - the food pyramid was designed by agricultural lobbyists, the environment would be better off if all the time and money spent on household recycling were invested in rainforest preservation, and there’s the old question of why a high-paid lawyer spends an hour in a soup kitchen, rather than spending an hour working and hiring minimum-wage labor for a week at the soup kitchen.

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