‘Virtue Signalling’ May Annoy Us. But Civilization Would Be Impossible Without It

Geoffrey Miller:

Ever since grad school, I’ve been fascinated by moral hypocrisy as a hallmark of virtue signaling. People say they believe passionately in issue X, but they don’t bother to do anything real to support X. That kind of behavior seemed highly diagnostic of hypocritical signaling, and hypocritical signaling is bad, because hypocrisy is always bad. Case closed.

Or was it? My understanding of virtue signaling got a lot more complicated when I learned more about signaling theory. In grad school I’d studied sexual selection through mate choice, and the “sexual ornaments” and “fitness indicators” that evolve to signal a potential mate’s good genes, good health and good brains. Fitness signaling is central to animal behavior. But there’s a lot more to signaling than sexual ornaments.

In 1996, I started work as a researcher at the Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution, in the economics department at University College London. It was an evolutionary game-theory center, led by Ken Binmore. I had a crash course in game theory, including signaling theory. I learned about Thorstein Veblen’s view of conspicuous consumption as wealth signaling, and Michael Spence’s view of educational credentials as intelligence signaling, and Amotz Zahavi’s view of animal displays as fitness signaling. I got the intellectual tools to think in a more nuanced way about virtue signaling.

There’s virtue signaling, and then there’s virtue signaling. This book is about both kinds.

On the one hand, there’s what economists call “cheap talk”: signals that are cheap, quick and easy to fake, and that aren’t accurate cues of underlying traits or values. When partisans on social media talk about political virtue signaling by the other side, they’re usually referring to this sort of cheap talk. Virtue signaling as cheap talk includes bumper stickers, yard signs, social media posts and dating app profiles. The main pressure that keeps cheap talk honest is social: the costs of stigma and ostracism by people who don’t agree with your signal. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat doesn’t cost much money, but it can cost you friendships.

On the other hand, there’s virtue signaling that’s costly, long-term, and hard to fake, and that can serve as a reliable indicator of underlying traits and values. This can include volunteering for months on political campaigns, making large, verifiable donations to causes, or giving up a lucrative medical practice to work for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti or New Guinea. The key to reliable virtue signals is that you simply couldn’t stand to exhibit them, over the long term, if you didn’t genuinely care about the cause.