Thoughts on status signals

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.

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One thing you've left out of the analysis is the cost of the signal. An ivy league degree may or may not be mostly signal, but either way, very few low status people will be able to get one.

So, one way that signals can lose their meaning is if the cost drops. Take the example of buying a drink. If drinks are expensive, then buying drinks for women you don't know is a costly signal. (Note that there's an equilibrium here; the more successful the tactic becomes, the less costly the signal becomes.) As we all become wealthier and the relative price of drinks goes down, the statement being made about disposable income goes away, and it becomes just a ritual.

I would say, then, that the primary driver for a signal to expire is not for it to be common knowledge that it's a signal, but for it to be common knowledge that it's a cheap signal. Knowing which signals to pay attention to reduces to the question of accurately estimating how costly it is.

If the signal costs more, it just indicates the person can pay for that signal. There are people who waste a large proportion of their income on rolex watches to appear wealthier; doesn't mean that they are.

However, signals that cost more may be more accurate than ones that don't cost as much. This doesn't mean that they can't expire or at least not work as well. Plus, when status-seeking behavior is better understood by everyone, only costly (and accurate) signals will be possible.

I would say, then, that the primary driver for a signal to expire is not for it to be common knowledge that it's a signal, but for it to be common knowledge that it's a cheap signal. Knowing which signals to pay attention to reduces to the question of accurately estimating how costly it is.

I agree. However, monetary cost is not the only such factor--the same logic applies to signals that require dedication to acquire and/or are difficult to acquire (learning to play a musical instrument, for instance). Note that the ivy league degree is difficult and requires dedication as well as being expensive, making it a very difficult-to-fake signal of status.

Many signals are quite long lived, and can survive even when people are well and consciously aware of them. Wearing a business suit signals you are serious about business, for example, and a smile signals friendliness.

I think you're hitting a different, though related point. A business suit and a smile are probably not credible signals, though their absence is a credible signal of the opposite. it's easy to wear a business suit and fake a smile: each applicant to a job opening will likely come with both. Those that don't are almost instantaneously downgraded. It seems that the signal becomes a new baseline for behavior, and though it doesn't credibly signal anything, its absence signals something.

I'm not positive on the mechanism here: it's probably related to the fact that the signal is so low-cost, and that anyone failing to display it is either extremely low status, or signals some other defect.

I am trying to politely tell you that you have a lot to learn about signaling. Suits and smiles do credibly signal things. And the larger point is that the ability of a signal to work usually has little to do with how long it has been around or who knows that it is a signal.

"I am trying to politely tell you that you have a lot to learn about signaling." That's why I'm here :)

I think you bring up an interesting point here. I agreed with pwno that, once everyone is aware of a signal, it's no longer credible, especially if it's cheap. But I think you're right as well that for the signals you mentioned, it doesn't matter who knows that it's a signal or how long it's been around.

The distinction, I think, is what one is trying to signal. Signals of conformity to a group or cooperativeness to an ally might be affected differently by these factors than signals of higher status. In fact, the former may gain in credibility as they get older, in a "this is what our group has always done" kind of way, whereas in the latter, the signal may get weaker as time goes on. I'm not sure that this is what happens, but there's no reason to think that signals for different things are affected equally by changing factors.

What should we be reading to provide the necessary background and convince ourselves of these things?

The post here was specifically talking about status-indicating signals. What a business suit actually signals is more like acceptance of certain social norms about what "serious business" entails. Most clothing is more about ingroup identity than status, per se. To the extent that a suit is expensive, and other people notice this, it will also signal status via wealth, of course, but that's somewhat orthogonal.

Also, smiles are probably hard-wired and are actually difficult to fake.

Good point. I should have made the distinction between status signals and "conformity" signals clearer. But I do think that there are very distinct mechanisms at work there, even though the ultimate end [higher status] is probably the same. [That is, we signal conformity to an employer to get a job that will give us higher status.]

My concern was mostly that "higher status is the end goal" has very little explanatory power in itself. Understanding more specifically what certain things signal is far more helpful.

Could you expound the evidence exposed by the donning of a suit? I'm having trouble fitting myself into these systems. It'd mean a lot to me to get an explanation from someone who knows what a valid argument looks like.

IAWYC that signals lose their value when they become well known enough to be commonly gamed, but some of your examples have reasons other than signaling behind them. The purpose of buying people drinks is not to signal status; rather, it's to make them feel obliged to reciprocate (by talking to the buyer).

Interesting ideas here. Let's be clear on the two uses of the word "signaling".

Behaviors such as clinging tightly to an in-group belief, or puffing out your chest while flirting, are "signaling" because of the reason for their existence -- other people observed your ancestors doing the behavior, and that affected their own behavior so as to increase your ancestors' gene frequencies.

Some signaling behavior includes conscious thought about the consequences of the behavior, so we can call that "conscious signaling".

Your point is that if A believes B is consciously signaling, A will become less influenced by B because:

  1. A knows that B has incentive to exaggerate, so will discount B's claims.

  2. If A thinks that B really cares about the impression he makes on A, then A will think B is lower status. (I don't accept the post's larger point that consciously impressing someone is always low status.)

It would be interesting if the claim that "signals expire" were true, but I don't see how it is.

(2) above already explains half of why, on a date, B can't show A his bank statement. The other half has been pointed out by Robin: It violates the social rules in our egalitarian society. If B were a medieval nobleman, he probably could directly show off his wealth.

I don't accept the post's larger point that consciously impressing someone is always low status

I think the point was that trying too hard is a sign of low status, where "too hard" is relative to the benefit that could be obtained by a favorable impression, or relative to the impress-ee's perception of their own status.