Signalling Theory and Status Moves

Economists have long been fascinated by the biological role of “costly signalling.” Think of the peacock’s plumage. In biology, signalling is generally about mating. The idea is that the peacock’s absurd feathers are difficult to maintain, and a female peacock who notices his plumage will have to acknowledge that he must be pretty fit and tough to survive in the wild without mussing the ensemble.  The frog’s call or the firefly’s light are difficult to produce, but these species seem to have evolved to be receptive only to costly signals.

In economics, signalling is about markets, especially the labor market. If we see ourselves as animals, too, then we have to ask ourselves how many of our behaviors are of this sort. Perhaps the value of personal hygiene and a nice haircut is what it indicates to others about our fitness to mate and dominate. It certainly helps to explain why folks are willing to wear dry-clean-only clothing or white shirts.

Many of the most expensive things are understated, difficult to detect. Since it’s not conspicuous consumption if nobody notices, we conclude that the signal is only for others ‘like you,’ who signal their own status by noticing the truly expensive shoes you’re wearing without regard for the wear and tear that walking in the city will cause. Then, we must distinguish between aspirational signalling and honest signalling: the true member of a class might notice some things, and ostentatiously disdain them. Much hipster behavior seems to fall into this category: struggles over ‘cool’ are really proxy struggles for a reliable guide to exclusion and distinction.

This presents some serious challenges to an egalitarian project, unfortunately. Remember when Adam Smith said that all a man needs to appear in public without shame is a clean white shirt? Well, it’s going to take a bit more than that, these days. That’s because signalling is all about competition. If it becomes too difficult to use simple markers like clothes to discriminate against a man, then society starts to use other indicators. Accent, zip code, manners, age, weight, tan, etc.

And perhaps education is a bit of a signal. You can learn how to be an engineer at MIT or the state university, and in both cases natural aptitude and discipline will likely make up the majority of your fitness for work in an engineering firm. Yet employers prefer the bigger name: it helps them sift the pile of candidates. In this way, an Ivy League education is a signal. Because of the standards of entry, it honestly indicates the quality of an applicant.

There are plenty of ways for prospective engineers from less costly schools to signal their fitness for work: contests and competitions, for instance. In these, students get a chance to compete on something close to an even playing field. They’ll still benefit some from the quality of the faculty who aid them, and if one group has a larger budget then the other, that may also help. But generally, such contests are short-term exertions that demonstrate superiority. A major prize indicates that the winners are better than their pedigree. But notice that the signal is related to a largely irrelevant extracurricular exertion: a wasteful or costly signal.

As engineering goes, this makes a fair amount of sense. There are applications where having the very best in a field will be worth the premium, and employers need some way to get a true appraisal of a worker’s talents. But what about philosophy? You won’t win any contests studying Kant or Anselm. And if the signalling theorists are right, that’s one reason we prize philosophical knowledge so much: uselessness is the costly signal that lets others know that we’re high in status, a good mate or employee.

My task as a teacher is often to distinguish this kind of philosophy-as-status-move from something closer to engineering: a set analytic tools that help my students make crucial distinctions, think clearly when confronted with novel problems, and record their thinking lucidly. That means abstaining from the obscure reference or enigmatic quotation. Those have their place, as all jargon does: even the phrase “signalling theory” itself is both a shorthand for a set of arguments and data and a signal to the cognoscenti that we’re one of them. But when I conclude that there’s work to be done on a Battaillean version of signalling theory it’s not really clear if I’m simply indicating my allegiance to the Continental philosophical tradition or actually suggesting a valuable research project. (More obscure references: potlach! Marcel Mauss! The Gift!)

This raies the second problem for those interested in egaltiarianism and signalling theory: how non-commodity signals are communicated. It’s one thing to demonstrate status with things, but once we’ve decided that we belong to the same basic class or group, status gets worked out in other ways, through interaction. Robin Hanson’s great blog “Overcoming Bias” focuses on many such issues, and he has a series of posts on status moves in particular that are worth reading in their entirety: start with Actors See Status, move to A Theory of Identity, and then finish with his recent post on Seeing Red. I’ll try to reconstruct the argument in a simple form, but it’s worth reading those posts for details and background.

The theory proposes that status moves are part of a status game that human animals play with each other. Little things like eye contact, attention and uptake, “negs” and praise all contribute to this game. Even friendships are shot through with status moves, all consensual, of course, but they are part of how we entertain ourselves.

“If I take a cup of tea to a friend then I may say `Get up, you old cow’ or `Your Highness’s tea’, pretending to raise or lower status.”

Within social groups (who we’ve developed through consumption signals) we tend to play a role. These roles can be correleted with the roles in dog/wolf packs: alpha, beta, and omega, roughly corresponding to boss, henchman, and scapegoat. Hanson suggests that people develop their identities around their preferred status within a group and in relation to out-groups. Yetit is extremely difficult for humans to acknowledge that what we’re doing is playing status games. As Hanson writes:

“Consider what we infer about the people among us who do explicitly think and talk about their actions as dominating or submitting to others. It usually isn’t positive.”

We feel so discomfited by explicit discussions of status games that we’ll usually undermine the status of those who bring our attention them. We play these games but we seem to have a blind spot to them. Thus, these games are hard to fake: they indicate an honest signal, because few will willingly attend to their behavior in such a way as to deceive others about their true or preferred status. Those who do (con men and pickup artists) will be immediately shunned when they are recognized.

Again, if these are hardwired behaviors and the blindspot is hardwired, too, then an egalitarian political project will have a tough time fitting such behaviors into a theory, but it will be incomplete or just false without it. In particular, it suggests the possibility that materialist egalitarianism will create status inflation, with the rich and powerful constantly raising the stakes for inclusion and deference.

For my part, I can’t help thinking of the conflict between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley primarily through the lens of status games. Specifically, these were two men who generally receive deference and respect in their bailiwicks. One of them had a gun, and when the other refused to be dominated socially, he reverted to a physical confrontation. To which the public reaction has largely been: “What a tough guy… you managed to best a 58 year old man who walks with a cane!” The possibility that Gates enraged the officer with a well-placed “yo momma” putdown just puts the icing on the cake: in aggressive status games, the loser is the one who resorts to physical violence rather than responding with a quick witted rejoinder.

Some resources on Signalling Theory:

Most of the resources on status games come from dating and ‘player’ websites. They’re frequently misogynistic and sometimes downright evil, so I’m not going to link to them for fear of drawing traffic. Here’s a discussion over at The Atlantic‘s blog Daily Dish. What’s most interesting about them, however, is the way that the only people who are really doing this kind of micro-anthropology of their own culture are relative outcasts (i.e. omegas) who have an instrumentalist view of the knowledge they garner.

The other source of insight into status games is the theater, and in my view the very best resource is David Mamet.

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