Thoughts on status signals

by pwno 11y23rd Mar 20091 min read24 comments


The LW community knows all too well about the status-seeking tendencies everyone has, not excluding themselves. However, the discussion on status signaling needs to be developed further. Here are some questions I don’t think have been addressed: what can we conclude about people who are blatantly signaling higher status? Should we or can we stop people from signaling?

First, let me clarify what I believe to be the nature of status signals. A status signal only exists in certain contexts. A signal in one community may not be affective in another simply because the other community has a different value system. Driving up to a Singularity Summit with 24 inch spinning rims on your car will signal low status, if anything.

An interesting property of status signals is that they expire. If everybody knows that everybody knows that a certain behavior has been used as a status signal in the past, it no longer works. One example of a status signal that is nearing expiration is buying an unacquainted woman a drink at the bar (note the context I am referring to; buying someone a drink may signal high status in other contexts). There is nothing inherently wrong with this act; it’s just that women know that most men are just trying to signal for high status—therefore, the signal won’t work. Some men know that women know about this signal and, thus, stop using the signal.

On LW, one signal on the verge of expiring is being a contrarian about everything or always finding faults with another’s arguments. This, however, could lead to a new anti-signal signal: agreeing too much.  

Signals that have completely expired are infinitely more numerous. For example, showing your resume or college transcript in most contexts is unacceptable. Even when applying for a job, the resume is no longer sufficient—several interviews are now necessary. Of course, in the interviews, the interviewer is just looking for unexpired signals i.e. signals they don’t know are signals.  

This discussion on the expiration of signals raises this question: why do signals expire?

When A realizes that B is signaling, B’s incentive scheme is exposed. A knows that B is trying to make himself appear higher status in the eyes of A or anyone else he is signaling to. Furthermore, A knows that B thinks A doesn’t know the signal is, in fact, a signal. Otherwise, B wouldn’t have done the signal. A now knows that B is trying to impress (a low status behavior by the way) and therefore has the incentive to lie. Since A knows that B doesn’t know that A knows he is signaling, A figures B thinks he can get away with lying or exaggerating the truth. Since A knows that B has the incentive to lie, A will find the signal not credible. In short, a signal expires once it’s common knowledge that the signal is a signal.

In an ideal world, we would all just cooperate and tell the truth about ourselves and we wouldn’t have to play this silly signal game. Unfortunately, if people start cooperating, the incentive to defect just gets higher. As you see, this is a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma game.

How can we get people to tell the truth?

Easy, everyone needs to learn about status-seeking behavior in order to weed out unreliable signals. The signal game may never end, but with everyone’s knowledge of status-seeking behaviors, the signals that aren’t yet weeded out will correspond more accurately to one’s true status.