Post No.: 0584
‘Signalling theory’ is about conveying signals to other individuals that, ostensibly, display one’s genetic fitness or some other desirable trait. The purpose could be for trying to gain a potential mate’s attention or for demonstrating one’s loyalty to a group, and could be achieved through showing off one’s possessions or self-handicapping behaviours, for instance.
Signalling one’s genetic fitness can be honest (e.g. teenage boys publicly taking risks in front of girls in order to demonstrate their physical prowess, or behaving altruistically (which can be regarded as a form of self-handicapping because it’s about giving away one’s resources for free) yet succeeding despite one’s generosity). Or signalling can be dishonest (e.g. wearing ‘sporty’ clothing to convey how active and adventurousness one is when one isn’t, or conspicuous consumption that hides one’s money problems).
What we wear will always signal something. People signal with the brands of products they purchase, even when a product is exactly the same or even worse than one from a cheaper brand. So the stuff we buy isn’t just about their physical function but about signalling to others our identity, status, or aspirations of such. (Post No.: 0384 explored the effects of brands.)
Signalling also occurs with what cars people drive, what products people decide to leave reviews for, and what books people display on their coffee tables or shelves for others to see. The latter is one reason why physical books aren’t dying out – people cannot easily display how ‘intellectual’ they are or what their tastes are to others with e-books. Most academic papers are in electronic form nowadays but this won’t fill a bookshelf for video-callers to see!
The amount of honesty or dishonesty can depend on the current environment – peaceful and civil society is a good thing overall but in this modern world, which presents relatively less survival pressure, most people don’t really have to prove if they can actually hunt or physically fend off a vicious predator anymore, hence a wider scope for dishonest signalling in the game of sexual selection. Whereas natural selection presents a direct or actual test of our genetic fitness to survive and reproduce – in sexual selection, individuals only have to do enough to convince a mate that one is fit, often by exploiting other people’s instincts (e.g. the assumption that ‘if he/she looks fit then he/she is fit’ or ‘popular means trustworthy’). In multitudinous ways – humans are still ancient creatures with instincts borne predominantly during environments that were vastly different to the ones that many live in today.
As a social species, a lot of social human life is about appearances, such as the appearance of being hardworking, healthy or virtuous – so much that some people wouldn’t do something unless other people knew about it! Many people specially tidy up their house just before guests arrive, and many consumers want vacuum cleaners that leave clear tracks on the carpet because they want guests to notice that they’ve just done some vacuuming! Pretence comes in many different forms and contexts. Some social media influencers use fake sponsorships to try to look more popular because the assumption is that popular influencers have lots of sponsorships.
People in general use social media as a key signalling medium. One’s image is carefully curated or massaged to make one look more fun or whatever’s desired. It’s about self-promotion. Many people use social media to judge and call out other individuals in order to signal their own stances on particular issues. The problem is, most people think, for doing that, they’ve ‘done their bit’ to combat an injustice, and after spending a minute or two writing a post they feel ‘woke’ but then go back to doing whatever they were doing.
Many images posted online are about people attempting to show ‘I was there’. When visitors go to see the Mona Lisa painting, relatively few are that bothered about finely appreciating the work of Leonardo da Vinci – they’re just there to take a quick photo to basically tell everyone in their circles ‘I’ve been there’. People who are more concerned about recording their time at a concert miss out on fully enjoying the event purely. Real or fake tans attempt to show how one is wealthy enough to holiday in hot and exotic locales (although in this case, a fake tan would be better for one’s health).
‘Sharenting’ or parents over-sharing pictures and other information about their children to others, is in large part about saying ‘hey look everyone, I’m parenting’. It’s also about displaying one’s pride. If it were just about keeping a record of one’s children’s lives then keep it private/within the family – it’d be more ethical for their privacy, as well as reduce the risk of identity fraud and child abuse. Woof.
Some people also don’t like those who appear excessively kind, clever or otherwise virtuous (whether they’re truthful, exaggerating or outright lying) because they make the former look bad in comparison! It’s about one’s image and reputation, which is relative and a perception. For the same reason, concealing anything that may be harmful to one’s reputation is vitally important too, hence a highly biased story of one’s life. People often say things for the sake of their public image yet don’t actually follow through with what they say in private action (e.g. expressing concern about animal welfare yet still eating battery chickens, or a company presenting an ethical and environmentally-considerate public image when they’re just ‘greenwashing’).
Few will ever dive to 200m underwater despite their wristwatches suggesting they could! Artificially-distressed clothing attempts to give the impression that the wearer lives a rugged and carefree life – but it ironically took so much care to choose the right clothing to look so carefree(!) People can use fillers to make their skin look less wrinkly as they age but this won’t change their true biological age or the genes that their offspring will inherit. But cheating, faking and pretending commonly works and is rewarded, and thus the desire to do so is common, because people do judge others by appearances too much.
Some talk about their work more than do any work it seems! Signalling is more about being seen or heard to be doing something, or for being something, than the actual doing, or being, it. It’s about ‘show’ rather than furry ‘go’.
Much of one’s image can be faked or exaggerated in a relatively low survival pressure environment compared to prehistory. And we instinctively sexually select in large part via what we see because it used to be reasonably reliable to, compared to in this modern world with its greater number of ways to manipulate one’s image (e.g. via cosmetic surgery, social media filters). With modern technologies, we can’t trust, at literally face value, what we see as much nowadays. People can look very different without makeup on (although whether it’s deception or art depends on the context).
In a high survival pressure environment, fakers have less chance of surviving because they’d be pretending to be or do something they ultimately aren’t or can’t. You can fool other people but not Mother Nature (e.g. if you act tough but crumble when the going gets tough). Having said that – if an individual does survive and reproduce in his/her current environment then he/she has ultimately survived and reproduced, and that’s natural selection.
If survival is relatively easy in a given environment then it’ll probably be a more efficient strategy to cheat and pretend if doing so works to attract mates because it’s less risky than putting oneself in genuine danger to try to actually prove one’s genetic worth. If people can convince others after expending minimal effort then that’ll save themselves resources. And culturally (and maybe also genetically), evolution then leads to increasingly superficial strategies (e.g. unhealthy weight-loss diets) and the increasingly superficial judgements of others. And this is self-reinforcing because if we’re constantly being superficially judged, we must spend a lot of time on our own superficial aspects, which will take time away from building our deeper traits.
Signalling can be without awareness though, such as insects or snakes that pretend to look poisonous through their colouration. So it’s not always a conscious behaviour. Being taken in by what’s on the surface is seldom a conscious behaviour too but an instinct. It’s all a product of physical and behavioural evolution.
People heuristically conflate ‘rich’ with ‘smart’, ‘good genes’ and other desirable traits hence most people want to look rich. Becoming rich is relatively difficult, energy-intensive and you’ll need a bit of luck, thus mimicking the rich is a natural and common strategy regarding sexual selection. People can attempt this by signalling with the particular material accoutrements they try to surround themselves with that genuinely rich people have. This is one reason why the wealthy are influential on what consumers buy. Counterfeit branded goods are thus a problem because they’re cheaper yet can still give the impression that they’re authentic.
Some might try to signal how wealthy they are by showing how much of their resources (e.g. money, food) they can waste without worry, as a self-handicap. But there’s a huge concern even if people personally do have plenty of resources to burn because, although it might be a proxy signal for one’s desirability as a mate, it’s harming the environment. However, since culture constantly evolves – we can learn that people who waste aren’t desirable at all. And for those who fund their luxuries through debt, they’ll also likely never become truly rich if they continue their frivolous habit. But the instinct is to follow what the successful, and by inference – rich, display.
Indeed, many self-made rich people are savvy, would rather do the screwing than be screwed, and really care about frugally getting the most out of every penny they spend. In a way, if a business loves you as a customer, for being loyal or great business for them, it might be because they love the easy money you give them! Or they might alternatively neglect you, knowing that whatever garbage they serve you, you’re still going to buy or use their products anyway(!) By wasting our money, we make other people rich and ourselves needlessly poorer. This isn’t about being miserly amongst friends, family or charities but savvy amongst for-profit entities. These corporations don’t need our generous overpayments and their CEOs are already considerably richer than us.
So some signalling strategies can harm our sexual selection chances in the long-run if they fail to secure a mate(s) in the short-run. This includes attempting quick fixes to improve our health or appearance (e.g. anabolic steroid abuse). Our, intentional or oblivious, lies can harm our chances of being the real thing, and modern technologies can make this temptation to cheat ourselves worse too.
But, again, dishonesty persists as a common strategy only because enough others are fooled by it. Whether behaving superficially or trusting superficiality, we might not understand why we do or desire what we do or desire because we’re just following our instincts, whether or not we’re aware of it. Education is the antidote to blind instinct.
Now some people are genuinely modest. We cannot assume that ‘if everyone had it, they’d flaunt it too’. We’ll logically never know how many people have something they don’t flaunt – precisely because they don’t boast about it. Those with the most interesting lives are too preoccupied with living their lives. And if you’re a true VIP then other people will report on your life and take your photographs so you don’t have to via selfies (e.g. monarchs).
Woof! I personally say we’ve got to look beyond the superficial or pretentious. It’s like it’s not as if people who cut their sandwiches straight rather than diagonally eat their own babies or bathe in swill – they just cut their sandwiches differently! And there’s no clearer way to show that you’re not something than by pretending that you are!