... you can mistake someone at level n for level n-1, but never for level n-2 – so pretending to be level n-2 and getting away with it is a sure sign that you are in fact level n and not level n-1.
I think of this as a subtype of countersignaling - nuanced countersignaling. The primary goal here to distinguish an actual level n from a similar-but-worse level n-1. This is done by sending an n-2 signal while you're at level n.
Note that under this theory, sending an n-3 signal is "dangerous" for the purpose of countersignaling as level n. After all, n-3 would be how an n-1 countersignals. Countersignaling at level n-2 is the only way to unambiguously countersignal level n status.
By contrast, with extreme countersignaling, the idea is to send the most extreme possible countersignal. If signals are on a spectrum from 10 to -10, extreme countersignaling is when a person at level 10 illustrates this by sending a -10 signal. A person at level 9 can only get away with sending a -9 signal.
I think this is what's going on in Scott's dialog in the post about friendship.
Becca: What are you doing here? I figured they’d have locked you away in the psych ward for good by now.
Scott: Nope. And what are you doing here? You haven’t killed off all your patients yet?
Becca: Only person in this hospital I might kill is standing right in front of me.
Scott: Be careful, I’m armed and dangerous *picks up a central line placement practice set menacingly*
Let's say that friendship is on the scale of solid friends > budding friendship > acquaintances > strangers > enemies. If Scott and Becca are solid friends, nuanced countersignaling would call for a dialog where they pretended to be acquaintances.
Becca: How's it going... Scott? Right?
Scott: It's actually Thomas, but no worries, Sarah. Good to see you again.
Becca: I'm going to go catch a movie after work, any chance you want to come?
Scott: Uh, maybe let's get coffee first and get to know each other better?
Note that this imaginary dialog doesn't come off as particularly funny or friendly, which might be because my writing sucks, but is also predicted by extreme countersignaling. They need to go all the way to pretending to be enemies to illustrate just how solid their friendship really is, which is how they actually behave in the original dialog above.
Fragility Of Countersignaling
Countersignaling is hard to get right. Under nuanced countersignaling, sending a level n-1 signal by accident puts you at risk of being taken as actually being at level n-1, while sending level n-3 or lower signals would also serve as countersignaling signals for those at lower levels. Level n-1 could also countersignal at level n-3, so an n-3 countersignal may not serve to distinguish level n from level n-1 as well as an n-2 countersignal.
Under extreme countersignaling, sending a -n countersignal is best. If the countersignal is not extreme enough, it signals timidity or distance. If it's too extreme, it might be taken as distressing.
This accounts for the outcome of Scott's second dialog:
Scott: Thanks for covering for me yesterday. The pharmacy called and said they were a little confused by your discharge instructions, so could you call them back and sort that out?
Pat: Oh, all right, but you owe me big time for taking care of all this for you.
Scott: Hey, if you hadn’t screwed up the discharge yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Pat: What? How dare you! *storms out of the room*
I felt really bad after this and sought out Pat to apologize. When I did, Pat was surprised I had taken the whole “storming out” thing seriously, since it was supposed to be theatrical and overdramatic, and felt guilty about worrying me.
Here, there's no threat of physical violence. It's not as extreme as the dialog between Scott and Becca. This corresponds to the lower level of Scott and Pat's friendship.
Under a nuanced countersignaling theory, Pat storming out of the room should have been more unbelievable than his "you owe me big time" comment. But instead, "you owe me big time" was effective countersignaling, and storming out of the room provoked distress, which is what extreme countersignaling predicts.
In general, I think that extreme countersignaling is more common than nuanced countersignaling. It doesn't follow the "barber-pole" model Scott proposed.
Fashion and Politics
Scott asks some interesting questions about fashion.
Why is wearing last year’s fashion such a faux pas? Shouldn’t the response be “That person is wearing the second most fashionable outfit ever discovered; that’s still pretty good”?
Why does fashion so often copy the outfits of the lower class (eg “ghetto chic”?) Why, if you are shopping for men’s shirts, are there so many that literally say “GHETTO” on them in graffiti-like lettering?
And I don’t think I’m a random nerd coming in here and telling fashion people that I understand them better than they understand themselves. This seems to be how fashion people really think. Just look at the word “poser” (or possibly “poseur”). The thrust seems to be: “A person who is not of the group that is cool enough to wear this fashion is trying to wear this fashion! Get ’em!”
Here, the "countersignaling" GHETTO shirts are appropriating the symbols not of class n-2, but of class -n. I agree with Scott that the "last year's fashion faux pas" seems like an example of nuanced countersignaling. Perhaps we have both going on in the world of fashion.
Scott then goes on to apply countersignaling to politics.
I see my high school classmates – a mostly unselected group of the general suburban California population – posting angry left stuff like “Ohmigod I just heard about that mayor in South Carolina WHAT A FUCKING BIGGOT!!!”
I see the people I think of as my intellectual equals posting things that are conspicuously nuanced – “Oh, I heard about that guy in South Carolina. Instead of knee-jerk condemnation, let’s try to form some general principles out of it and see what it teaches us about civil society.”
And I see the people I think of as the level above me posting extremely bizarre libertarian-conservative screeds making use of advanced mathematics that I can barely understand: “The left keeps saying that marriage as an institution isn’t important. But actually, if we look at this from a game theoretic perspective, marriage and social trust and forager values are all in this complicated six-dimensional antifragile network, and it emergently coheres into a beneficial equilibrium if and only if the government doesn’t try to shift the position of any of the nodes. Just as three eighteenth-century Frenchmen and a renegade Brazilian Marxist philosopher predicted. SO HOW COME THE IDIOTS ON THE LEFT KEEPS TRYING TO MAKE GOVERNMENT SHIFT THE POSITION OF THE NODES ALL THE TIME???!”
... And my theory is that in a world where the upper class wears black and the lower class wears white, they’re the people who have noticed that the middle class is wearing black as well, and have decided to wear white to differentiate themselves.
The "libertarian-conservative screeds" bit is made up, but let's pretend like it's real, actually brilliant, and Scott's right about the countersignaling. The most obviously countersignaling bit is the phrase "THE IDIOTS ON THE LEFT." Everything else before and after that is the bizarre brilliancy. And when this imaginary libertarian countersignals, he does it not by aiming for some sort of dumber-than-smart but smarter-than-dumb n-2 level, but for an all-caps "THE IDIOTS ON THE LEFT" ranting tone. This is extreme countersignaling!
Everything In Its Place
One common feature of all these examples is that the countersignaling is confined. The doctors are having a brief exchange in the middle of their rounds. The GHETTO shirt is just a shirt, one part of the wardrobe, worn occasionally, and probably doesn't actually look GHETTO overall. The libertarian-conservative screed is 4% countersignaling, 96% argument and analysis.
Countersignaling is also useful as a self-signal. If you intuitively feel that you can get away with a little bit of countersignaling, it's a sign that you've sent a sufficiently powerful signal to have the countersignal be interpreted correctly. But countersignaling is just the cherry on top of the straightforward signaling sunday.
This is why it's hard for me to agree with Scott in his analysis of a reality-based conservative smart-person reaction against Mrs. Grundy leftism as being explained by countersignaling. Countersignaling seems to function best when it's a small part of a much larger straightforward signaling context. It's not a lifestyle - just a bit of fun.
The brilliant mathematician puts a "Don't Tread on Me" bumper sticker on his Tesla? Countersignaling. The brilliant mathematician spends an inordinate amount of time engaging with whatever conservative news stories float across his Facebook feed? Before too long, it's not countersignaling anymore - just reversed stupidity.
I interpret the engagement with conservative ideas Scott's describing a little more straightforwardly. Lots of people are inundated with Mrs. Grundy leftist takes on social media. They're smart enough to try and figure out what they really think. So they say things like "Oh, I heard about that guy in South Carolina. Instead of knee-jerk condemnation, let’s try to form some general principles out of it and see what it teaches us about civil society.”
This isn't countersignaling. It's just signaling. This isn't making fun of anybody, and it's calling for straightforward civil discourse in terms nobody could possibly mistake for anything else.
Like a computer, a relationship can sometimes be rebooted by turning it off and turning it back on again. I read these people as acknowledging that the relationship is at a -7 ("instead of a knee-jerk condemnation"), and are sending signals as if it were at a 0 ("let’s see what it teaches us about civil society"). This is neither extreme nor nuanced countersignaling. It seems to me that this is just a fail-safe social move that is pretty widely recognized. If things are getting too bad, we can revert to the polite civility that might be extended at a gathering of strangers.
So I'd agree with Scott in finding some hope in our cantankerous political situation. But instead of seeing an intelligentsia oscillating between whichever political opinion is just out enough to be hip, I see an intelligentsia being the first to recognize the dynamics of the social situation and extend an olive branch to the other side. They're banking on others finding this appealing and joining in.