As with so many bold ideas, I worry that it leaves the impression that one causal factor (signaling, in this case) has overwhelming explanatory power. One of the few things we can say for sure about social sciences is that the effect sizes are almost always small, whether of immutable traits or interventions (<<0.5, probably <0.2). From my armchair, I suspect it's because people are so different, particularly when considering their contexts when making a specific decision.

To get specific, maybe the educated urban 20something makes art because of signaling. But maybe Frida Kalho really had something that she needed to say. Maybe a toddler just likes orange. Maybe that same 20something transitions into doing it for the sake of quiet mastery-driven self-esteem after getting some random praise early on from their now-wife. So the effect (like many others) can be real, but it's a lot more useful to specify the people+contexts where we'd expect it to be most predictive.

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Oct 25, 2022·edited Oct 25, 2022Liked by Sam Atis

+1 to Matthew's comment. I'd add: many of the counter-arguments that signalling advocates use against perspectives like Matthew's end up inflating the concept to the point of near-meaninglessness.

The most fundamental phenotypical fact about Homo sapiens is that we live in cultures, meaning (a) we act collectively but (b) the 'script' for our collective action is not hardcoded into our psychologies; it's flexible and emergent from our interactions with others. For example, every human culture has complex collective courting/mating rituals, but they each have *different* rituals. Evolution didn't give us a psychological module for using Tinder; it gave us a generalised motivation to seek a mate, but left a lot of things blank (who is an appropriate mate? how do I meet them? how do we coordinate our actions?) to be filled in through cultural learning. This cultural learning is learning *from* and *about* other people, looking at their actions and gleaning some credible information about their characters and motivations. In other words, almost all of our behaviour must *necessarily* have a signalling aspect, because humans must transmit information to each other about their behavioural dispositions in order to live under culture.

But when interpreted like this, the claim 'a lot of human action is signalling' is nearly tautological, essentially equivalent to 'human beings live under culture'. The claim that art is signalling, for example, comes down to the claim that artists create art in large part to transmit private information about themselves to other people - which is just obvious! The claim that love and dating is just signalling is even more blatantly trivial if poked at a little, since we don't have a cognitive module for Tinder. The claim that morality is just signalling is at least as old as Adam Smith, if not Aristotle: human beings would never learn to make moral judgments if they were alone outside of society, so the phenomenon of moral judgment is emergent from learning information about other humans. If 'signalling' is interpreted broadly, as meaning just 'conveying information about oneself through one's behaviour', then none of this is particularly interesting or insightful.

Now, I think this inflated concept of 'signalling' still has a lot of use in e.g. mathematical models of human behaviour: an account of signalling can help us incorporate culture into our rational choice models, which is incredibly helpful. But economists and rational choice theorists tend to get this backwards: rather than 'signalling' being a concept used to revise our rational-choice models so they match up more closely with common-sense accounts of human behaviour, they see it as a concept from rational-choice models that we should use to revise our common sense!

Now, as we've already seen, in fact there's nothing contrary to common sense in the claim that human behaviour is largely signalling. So in order to vindicate a revisionist account, people like Hanson and Simler must be using the word 'signalling' in a more narrow way, limiting their focus to instances where our behaviour conveys *certain types* of information. Typically, people like this have a conception that we might call signalling-as-bragging: the information that our behaviour conveys is roughly 'Oh, look at me, aren't I great?'. To take a specific example, rather than the artist signalling information about their emotions or their moral convictions or etc., they are signalling 'I am talented and have good taste'.

The claim that most of human behaviour is braggadocious *is* contrary to common-sense; but it's also not obviously true. Interpreted in this narrow way, the hypothesis that 'much human behaviour is signalling' is subject to the kind of arguments Matthew makes: it's probably underpowered, and while bragging might be a big part of human psychology there just isn't enough evidence to make a stronger claim than that. In response to these claims, the advocates of 'signalling hypotheses' often then retreat to the motte, interpreting signalling broadly.

One can see this move in the example of baboons. Sam introduces this example as a case from the animal kingdom that might illustrate, via analogy, how 'we often have selfish or otherwise unattractive motivations'. But, while baboon grooming is signalling behaviour, it's not unattractive signalling: the baboons are signalling their willingness to aid each other! 'I am doing this to show how much I am willing to do for you, in the hope that the feeling is reciprocated' is not an unattractive motivation, never mind a selfish one, for animals (including humans) to have - it's the kind of motivation that we *hope* our romantic partners have, for example, in remembering anniversaries or purchasing flowers.

If we approach human behaviour with a lens that is overwhelmingly dominated by considerations of economic rationality, then signalling might initially look like a small and unimportant quirk; it could then be a surprise to learn how prevalent it is. But, if we are interpreting 'signalling' broadly and using any other lens to analyse human behaviour, its prevalence isn't shocking at all - it's basic and even obvious. Another way to put this is that signalling is not, in fact, just one causal factor (as Matthew put it); it's a whole range of causal factors, corresponding to essentially every culturally-influenced part of our psychology. The issue is that in economic contexts, signalling is often introduced with examples of bragging or showing off (conspicuous consumption, for example, or metaphorical peacock tails), and so the prevalence of signalling-interpreted-broadly is conflated with the prevalence of signalling-as-bragging, a single causal factor that is attributed huge significance. These two different ways of interpreting a 'signalling hypothesis' are not often disambiguated, creating slippage between a true-but-boring claim and an interesting-but-false claim.

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Sorry I'm a bit late to this ... But Daniel nettle has a good post about the watching eyes effect


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What an interesting essay!

One of the phenomena cited here (changes in altruism when witnessed) has been demonstrated to have no effect on Autistic people. As an Autistic person who studied Lorentz and the rest back in ye olde 20thC I often felt confused by suggestions extrapolated from grooming behaviour in chimps to universal statements about human motivations, when I struggled to feel the "debts" in economies of cooperation.

So I wonder if this isn't a good time to ask the author to specify "in Allistic people"? I mean, the suggestion in this essay is that signalling is universal among neurotypes. But evidence suggests otherwise.

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