Signaling is a shortcut - if they signal, update downwards

If someone signals something to you, it reduces the likelihood of it being true.

Previously, signaling was a source of valuable info. 

  • A person engaged in hunting big game was seen as cooperative and skillful because the signal is costly to fake. One wouldn’t hunt merely to be seen as cooperative and skillful, because they may die or get injured in the process.
  • In the middle ages, if they were fat, they were wealthy because they could afford food. The signal is the only thing that can explain the conclusion; this is honest signaling.

But today, we can’t trust signaling as much as we used to. While dishonest signaling has always existed, it’s more prevalent than ever:

  • Signaling doesn’t incur costs. Displaying a flag as your profile pic is a costless way to signal solidarity but doesn’t mean you’d do anything tangible for the cause. With one click you can signal to all your friends - in the past, you at least needed to talk to them.
  • The signal is decoupled from their abilities, so dishonesty is prevalent. In the natural world: if they are fit, you could assume they are strong. The visual cue and abilities are inseparable. In the social world: if someone flexes their “change maker” title, they want you to make the conclusion that they are a high-quality businessperson. But this conclusion may not be accurate, especially as there are endless credentials and titles, everyone is award-winning, and it’s easy to fake a signal (like follower count).

If, before, our minds operated like this:

“If you see this signal, think more highly of them. Update your thinking upwards based on new information.”

Now, our minds should operate like this:

“If they are signaling, think less of them. Update your thinking downwards rather than upwards.”

Signaling seeks to change perceptions, not reality.

It is a shortcut:

  • Instead of doing the work to be happy, you signal on social media how happy you are
  • Instead of building a successful company, you signal your business acumen with credentials and awards
  • Instead of becoming rich, you buy clothes that make you look rich

Our natural tendency is to be impressed by the signal, but if you think of signaling as a shortcut, you remember to update your thinking of them downwards. 

The converse, too, is a useful heuristic (and yes, these are heuristics, so not always accurate and applicable, but general guidelines):

If they avoid signaling, update your thinking upwards

  • If they undermine their intellect, they are probably smart. If they claim they are super smart, they don't understand how little they understand. (This is the Dunning-Kruger effect)
  • The longer their Twitter or LinkedIn bio, the less they’ve accomplished. (Or: “The smallest dogs bark the loudest”)

The truer something is, the less we feel the need to flex it.

Isn’t it funny how people who perform at a high level downplay their abilities? 

“Yeah, I played well. But I could have been better.”

“I just got lucky, anyone could have done it.”

It’s almost like performing well and signaling have an inverse relationship.

And if we look at signaling as a shortcut, this relationship makes sense. 

This world trades success for long-term focus and consistency, and if you resort to signaling - attempting to take a shortcut to success - do you have what it takes to perform at a high level?

The modern challenge: Separating valuable info from the rest

The challenge with signaling is that we may not know what’s honest and what’s not. 

Is this person signaling or merely stating facts?

Nature has figured out a way to verify the authenticity of a signal: the costlier the signal, the more honest it is. If it’s too costly, it’s not worth it to fake.

That’s why conspicuous consumption exists. “If they can waste 100k on expensive jewelry, they must be rich (the signal is too costly to fake).”

Unfortunately, costly signaling isn’t reliable enough anymore. Anyone can rent a Porsche or edit a photo or buy fake jewelry or buy it with money they don’t own. 

Worse yet, those who signal wealth may actually be wealthy - but we cannot reverse engineer their abilities from that signal. Assume someone invested in Bitcoin in 2016 and became a millionaire - based on this information, we often assume they are a visionary (and not that they got mad lucky or just forgot they owned coins). Today’s social environment leads to more random successes than the human brain has evolved to handle. A signal of success doesn’t always give accurate information about the person’s abilities.

Many forms of signaling can be gamed and many can be inaccurate signs of someone’s abilities, so we should consider signals that are hard to game.

Generally, these are things you must earn or work hard for. Julian Shapiro writes that sounding smart for an hour in a podcast is hard to game while credentials can be gamed.

Saying your newsletter or brand has been featured on Forbes is easy-to-game social proof. Having hundreds of real people applaud you on Twitter is harder to game, thus a more reliable signal.

So, we need to be careful with signals. What we accept naturally isn’t enough anymore.

If Burger King announces they stand with the LGBTQ+ community, we shouldn’t automatically bump our perception of the brand. They just want our little gay dollars.

In order to change our opinion or consumption, we need to demand costly signaling or, preferably, signals that are hard to game - major donations to support this cause or independent reviews that show BK is an inclusive company - and not virtue signaling.

We should see most signaling as a shortcut and not settle for it.

Signaling goes in levels

As you develop, you’ll look down on those pesky attempts at signaling on the lower levels - all the while you’re trying to rise up a level through signaling a different thing.

So when you’re signaling, you’re trying to elevate your status to the next level, but those at the next level see what you’re doing and won’t assign extra status to you.

Those below you will update their perception of you upwards but those above you will update downwards. 

I guess that’s enough for some people, getting the admiration of those at the beginning of the journey.

But signaling does establish a ceiling - you’ll have a hard time working with those on the upper levels if they see through your signaling and update their perception of you downwards.

And I believe they do. Those at the top are rarely impressed by signaling, and to the extent they are, I believe they appreciate authenticity more. They appreciate you not taking a shortcut via signaling but doing the work to go up a level.

Conclusion

If someone signals something to you, it reduces the likelihood of it being true.

For example, if they claim to be intelligent, update your perception of their intelligence downwards.

That’s my main argument, and it reflects the fact that it has never been as easy and costless to signal, and that many signals can be gamed.

Updating your thinking downwards may seem like a harsh conclusion on such limited information, especially as it's challenging to know which signals are honest. But if we don’t consciously try to go downwards, our subconscious wants to go upwards.

Plus, I’d rather be too harsh than not harsh enough in who I take advice from, which friends I hang around with, what kind of people I form business relationships with... I’d rather the pool be limited to those whose merits are legit and not inflated by signaling, and those who are content with themselves so they don’t feel the need to signal.

Signaling is a shortcut. Like all shortcuts, if you take it, you can benefit in the short term but you’ll forego long-term benefits. 

Don’t be fooled by signaling, and don’t try to fool others with it. 

Read next:

Get each new post to your email: