Multidimensional signaling

What do you infer about a person who has ugly clothing? Probably that they have poor taste (in clothes or subcultures). But it could also be that they are too poor to improve their wardrobe. Or can’t be bothered.

What about someone with poor grades? The obvious inference is that they aren’t so capable at the subject, but it may again be that they can’t be bothered, or that they have more urgent things to do with their time.

And someone who makes clever jokes? Probably that they are smart and naturally funny, but if they had more time or effort to spend on this, it probably helped.

For all kinds of traits that people might try to signal with their behavior, someone can send a better signal if they have more money or time or self-control. Even when the main signal being sent is not usually thought to be about any of those things.

The reason that this interests me: if signals often divide the population into ‘better or richer’ vs. ‘worse or poorer’, I wonder if this would cause us to imagine that being rich is associated with being better, even if the two were entirely independent. (And similarly for wealth in other general-use resources, like self-control and time).

In a simple case, suppose there are just people with pretty clothes (who have good taste, and also the wealth and industriousness to show it) and people with ugly clothes (who either have bad taste, or lack resources or will). Then do observers come to think of ‘rich, go-getter good taste’ type and a ‘poor, lazy, bad taste’ type? Or do they pay more attention to the actual structure of the space, and know for instance that learning that someone really has bad taste does not actually means they are more likely to be lazy or poor?

New Doc 2017-10-15 (1)

A simple example. X marks everyone who don’t signal.

Note that I’m not merely suggesting that a person with more wealth can send signals to look like they are better—that much is clear. I’m suggesting that at a population level, if the wealthier people can’t be distinguished from the better people on some axis, then observers may come to think that the two are associated in general, even if they are not at all.

If so, this would be important, because it would apply in a huge range of cases of signaling. So that the properties of poverty and weak-willedness and such would appear to us to be much worse than they really were.

3 responses to “Multidimensional signaling

  1. This seems related somehow to the “diamond in the rough” intuition, that if you’re a discerning gem specialist you can distinguish between a valuable uncut gem and a pebble, which gives you an advantage relative to the uninformed public who are better off waiting until a professional jeweler has polished and set the gem.

    This is also related to the common statistical problem where e.g. pretty much everything we think is healthful may become more correlated with health as health enthusiasts follow the new official advice.

  2. > Or do they pay more attention to the actual structure of the space, and know for instance that learning that someone really has bad taste does not actually means they are more likely to be lazy or poor?

    But in the example you gave they ARE more likely to be lazy and poor by virtue of the fact that they didn’t fall into the rich, good taste and industrious group.

    I mean either these properties really are statistically independent in which case you can’t have that special rich, good taste and industrious group being especially salient compared to the right, bad taste, industrious group and all the other combos. Or they aren’t statistically independent because wealth, good taste and industriousness cluster and finding out someone lacks one of them IS evidence they lack the others since it rules out their membership in the golden boy club.

  3. I think some forms of signaling or countersignaling are specifically designed to avoid this, and IHMO that’s something we should encourage in society.

    For example, in the grunge movement and indy movement one way to signal coolness was specifically to buy old used cloths from a thrift store; it’s a way of signaling that you don’t care about corporate culture and you’re not going to support it, with additional connotations of maybe being an artist or a musician, ect. The side benifit is that it’s actually much cheaper to get your cloths like that, making that fashion choice available to poorer people (which is one reason it was especally popular among “starving artist” types). And the fact that certain high-profile people in the music scene who clearly could afford better still affected that same look made it easier for other people to do that without seeming either poor or without taste.

    Or think about the tech guys who just wear a t-shirt and jeans all the time, or in extreme cases people like Zucherburg who literally wear an identical shirt every day. They’re signaling that they don’t care about signals and don’t have the time or energy to worry about silly things like cloths; partly they can get away with it because there’s kind of a stereotype that “smart geeks don’t care about fashion”. But an effect of that is that now if you see a person at a corporate job who’s not wearing a tie, it may mean he’s a more valuable employee, not a less valuable one. It creates space for a kind of signaling that doesn’t require a lot of time or a lot of money, a kind of “My skills are so valuable I don’t even have to signal” signal.

    I think that having a society that allows space for counter-signals like that is a good thing, in a lot of ways. It helps give poor people and people without much time an easy way to not get crushed in the signaling arms race (not really out, of course, but it at least *feels* like you’re out of it). And, you know, some people just really aren’t that good at picking up or sending social signals; creating room for them in society is important too.


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