Impressive vs honest signaling

by adamzerner9 min read26th Oct 202113 comments

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SignalingRelationships (Interpersonal)Practical
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Cross posted on my personal blog.

Epistemic status: Musings.

One thing that I am particularly happy with in my life is my girlfriend Alex. Here is the story of how we met.

I was 23 years old and had never had a girlfriend before. Heck, I never even dated. It's not that I wasn't interested. I was less interested than most, but I had some interest. I just didn't think I'd be able to find someone who I'm compatible with.

A friend of mine encouraged me to give Tinder a shot. I had been off and on about it. I had a few conversations but didn't really take it seriously and didn't spend much time with it. Then I had a job interview in Vegas, and I figured it could be fun to try meeting someone to date while I was there.

I went about it much differently from how others use Tinder. I mostly paid attention to the profile descriptions. Very few people actually wrote anything in their profiles. I wasn't interested in that. If you only write a sentence or two on your profile, I feel like that says something about either how deep you are, or, more charitably, what you're looking to get out of Tinder.

Anyway, I would swipe through, rejecting everyone who had these two sentence profiles. Then when people had longer profiles, I would skim them. If they weren't interesting, I'd reject. If they were, I'd read them in full, and then make a decision.

There weren't many people who I liked, but there were a few. Then when I came across Alex's profile, I was really excited. She had a somewhat long profile. It touched on rationality, self-improvement, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. And she was cute. So I super liked her.

To my surprise, she liked me back! I actually remember where I was. I was in the Luxor hotel. The one that looks like a pyramid and has that super powerful light beam that shoots up into the sky. I remember walking off to the side and writing out this really long message to her.

I talked about all of these wacky things that people don't talk about in initial messages to people you connect with on Tinder. Actually, my mind is fuzzy on the details. It definitely had a lot to do with how rationality and self-improvement is very important to me. And how I have crazy ideas of making a ton of money with startups and figuring out how to use that money to "save the world". I think I might have mentioned that I don't envision ever getting married or having kids.

To my surprise again, she messaged me back and was really interested! Almost six years later, we're still together.

In contrast, I remember when my cousin was dating, he would tell me about how he was frustrated with how girls would reject him without giving him a chance. Eg. he would match with them on some online dating site, exchange a few icebreaker-type messages, and then they'd ghost him.

He's a smart guy and also pretty honest. His assessment was that it couldn't have been something he had said. It's not like they had any important new information about him that could rationally be a good reason to reject him. "Oh, you seemed kinda cool at first, but now that you said X, Y and Z, I interpret those as bad signals, and now I'm not interested enough to continue talking to you." It wasn't like that, is what my cousin was saying. There was nothing he said that plausibly could have been an X, Y or Z.

It never made sense to me why he was so frustrated with this though. If you disagree so strongly with how the girl went about this, then she's doing you a favor by rejecting you. She probably isn't right for you. Would you rather realize that you guys aren't compatible after a few bad dates? Or have a few dates but then when things get more serious and you're in a relationship, go through a nasty break up? I know I would rather just know ahead of time, upfront, and avoid all of that.

So then, for me, in the context of dating, I would want to focus on honest signaling, not impressive signaling. I would want to display who I really am. The raw version. I wouldn't want to focus on impressing them.

Well, I guess I am oversimplifying this. I can imagine some situations where it'd make sense to deviate from this raw, baseline, honest version of yourself, and signal something a little more impressive. The main argument my cousin had for wanting to do this is that it significantly opens up your pool of options. For example, if you're honest, maybe you only get one date a month, but if you act impressive, you get four. And maybe you end up hitting it off with date #3. Acting impressive opens up that possibility for you.

My counter to this is that, if you really are compatible with this date #3 girl, why would she have rejected your honest signaling in the first place? And then his response is that, well, sometimes that's just how it is.

I can agree with that. But I'll also point out that in doing so, you risk false positives. Ie. the girl likes the impressive signals you are putting out, you guys have a good time and start feeling like you're compatible, but then issues arise down the line. This is a false positive. Your initial feeling of "we're compatible" turned out to be wrong.

Of course, with honest signaling, you risk the opposite: false negatives. Maybe people reject you (a negative), but in the counterfactual world where you signaled more impressiveness and they gave you a chance, you guys turn out to be really compatible (the negative was false/wrong).

There are certainly tradeoffs here. Personally I'm a big fan of honest signaling, but I also acknowledge that the best approach depends on the situation, and that there is a whole spectrum where "honest" and "impressive" are only the extremes. (Actually, that's not true. You could also give off unimpressive signals. Think Spongebob on Opposte Day.)


Another situation where you should think about honest vs impressive signaling is when searching for a job. It's the same situation where you have to make tradeoffs regarding false negatives and false positives. But I think that here, it isn't necessarily obvious to people that false positives are a problem that you'd want to avoid.

Imagine the following situation. You apply for a job. It seems like a good opportunity. You work hard to do well in the interview and impress them. In fact, you are so successful at this that you actually get the job, when in reality you aren't really qualified. Ie. your true skills are a 4/10 but you do such a good job signalling impressive stuff in the interview that they perceive your skills as an 8/10 and they hire you. Why is this an issue? Well, continue telling yourself this story. What happens next?

You show up to work, and after spending some time onboarding, you are given tasks. But these tasks are above your head. It's too much for you. Your skills aren't sufficient. You've set yourself up to fail. So you do your best, but at the end of the day you aren't able to perform like they expected you to. You know it. They know it. You feel anxious about it. It's awkward. They start eyeing you with a hint of skepticism.

One possibility here is that they they fire you. In which case, now you have to start applying to jobs again, which could take a few months, perhaps. I bet if this happened you would have preferred to not have accepted the job in the first place. It would have been better to hold out for a better fit.

Of course, another possibility is that they don't fire you. From what I can tell, companies are way too conservative about firing people, so this is very plausible. I get this impression from my personal experience working at four different companies, from talking to friends, and also from the fact that I see a lot of advice in blog posts and stuff about firing more aggressively (and taking more time to hire.)

But even if you keep the job, I still feel skeptical that it'd work out well for you. When you're not meeting their expectations it's easy to feel anxious, and that's no way to live.

Then again, a lot of times you just need to send impressive signals in order to get the job, but then once you get it, the job isn't actually that hard and you can manage it. Or maybe you are in above your head, but you can solve that problem by working a little harder for a few months, ramp up on your skillset, and then you'll be fine.

Here's another situation. If you're looking for something very specific, it could make sense to go hard on the honest signaling. Or even on unimpressive signaling!

For example, suppose you really care about asynchronous communication. I think the impressive approach would be to tell them that you have these preferences but that you also are a "team player" and can be flexible when synchronous communication makes more sense. The honest approach would be "I can do synchronous, but I don't want to and I think that people often resort to it way too quickly." Ie. the honest approach would be to "take a stance". And then the unimpressive signaling approach would be to throw a little temper trantrum and ramble about how much you hate meetings.

Again, there are the same false negative and false positive considerations at play. But if you have a really strong preference for this — you really, really don't want to end up at a place that has annoying synchronous communication — then honest or even unimpressive signaling could make sense. It would mean a low rate of false positives. Ie. it'd be very unlikely that a place that does a lot of synchronous communication would want to hire you if you gave off those signals, and maybe that is something you want to prioritize. But that would come at the expense of more false negatives of course.


A final place I can think of where this idea of honest vs impressive signaling is relevant is with friends. Well, "impressive" probably isn't the right term here, but bear with me.

Imagine that there is a friend you have. You've been friends with them for years, let's say. But for whatever reason, you haven't been hitting it off lately. One option you have is to try to "force it". To try extra hard to be fun and pleasant to be around. Maybe that is the kick you guys need, your relationship gets out of it's funk, and it returns to it's normal awesome state.

Another option is to not force it. To embrace the fact that you guys haven't been hitting it off, and to not try to improve that situation. Sometimes there is something you can do to fix it, but other times, well, people just grow apart. They're not compatible anymore, and it isn't worth maintaining the friendship. If that's the case, then you'd do well to give off an honest signal that you in fact have not been having much fun with this person recently. Such a signal would probably lead you down the road of spending less time together, instead of the road where you both "force it", continue to spend a lot of time together, but don't actually enjoy that time spent very much.

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12 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:57 AM
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I found myself nodding in agreement with the dating part, but then not nodding so much at the job part.

At least in the programming jobs market, I feel like getting jobs that require 8/10 skills, but you only have 5/10 skills, is a great way to level yourself up to the 8/10 level.  In my experience, you level up at a rate that outweighs the firing risk.  However, it's hard to know how unique or not my experience with this is.

That makes sense. I think I didn't do a good job of expressing how I really feel. I think in most situations what I said here is probably the case:

Then again, a lot of times you just need to send impressive signals in order to get the job, but then once you get it, the job isn't actually that hard and you can manage it. Or maybe you are in above your head, but you can solve that problem by working a little harder for a few months, ramp up on your skillset, and then you'll be fine.

And that the risk of getting fired is usually quite low. However, I also sense that a lot of people are... too good at suffering. Something Paul Graham said in How to Do What You Love comes to mind:

Don't decide too soon. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong.

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell "Don't do it!" (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.

I think something sorta similar is true with jobs more broadly. Many people can afford to be picky about the things they want in a job, which honest signaling would help with, but instead they default to trying to "win" during the interview by impressing, and making decisions based on prestige and money.

Hm, leaning towards honest signaling as a heuristic (in life) would help with that problem. At the expense of other things though. Does that make it worth it on balance? My impression is yes, but it's hard to say.

I think your reasoning only works if the fraction of people who use impressive signalling is sufficiently small. If most people use it everybody starts to price it in. Then if you apply for a job at skill level X you have to show impressiveness at skill level X+N - otherwise you won't get it. Correspondingly on the dating market. You can still try honest signalling but your chances will go down. It only works if you can reliably detect honest signallers. 

See also The Evolution of Trust

Then if you apply for a job at skill level X you have to show impressiveness at skill level X+N - otherwise you won't get it.

Well there are jobs out there that you'd be able to get via honest signaling, right? For example, suppose your skill level is a 5/10 and there is a job that is supposedly for a skill level of 3/10, but like you're saying, to outcompete the 3/10 candidates you need to do better, so in reality it will be a 5/10 type of person who gets the job. But then if this X+N thing is true, honest signaling would lead you to a job that you are underqualified (and underpaid) for. I think that is probably something that happens a lot in job markets.

However, I don't think it is always that simple. For example, someone who really, really wants to work somewhere that embraces asynchronous. It might make sense for them to lean towards honesty there. And more broadly, this is what I was really trying to get at in the post. That it depends on the situation and honest vs impressive signaling might be something you'd want to add to your list of things to consider. "Do I want to focus on honest signaling or impressive signaling here? What are the tradeoffs?"

I agree that it is rarely that simple. A smart person will always find edge cases to make use of. Like detecting the other honest signalers on Tinder via their profiles in the OP.

Almost all interactions are a mix of cooperative and competitive pressures.  When cooperating, you want to give and receive truth - make each participant have a better predictive model of the future, to better achieve your common goals.  When competing, you (generally) want to deceive your counterpart, in order to gain power and help them take actions that benefit you more than them.

There's often a long-term / short-term element to the mix of cooperation and competition.  If you're looking for longer-term, repeated interactions, you're filtering to a relationship that emphasizes the cooperation, and therefore you prefer more truth (while probably also keeping some secrets for later, once the relationship has been established).  

Great point about the long vs short-term element! I wanted to say something about that in the post but couldn't figure out how to fit it in, but I agree.

It later occurred to me that there are multiple purposes beyond timeframes.  Filtering, to select more compatible initial matches, and expectation-setting and power-jockying early in the relationship may have competing choices for how to focus your profile. These factors are likely related, of course.

Some people, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, don't want to belong to a club that would have them as a member. Impressive signalling is important for getting opportunities that are "out of your league."

As it is written, first: know thyself.

His assessment was that it couldn't have been something he had said. It's not like they had any important new information about him that could rationally be a good reason to reject him. "Oh, you seemed kinda cool at first, but now that you said X, Y and Z, I interpret those as bad signals, and now I'm not interested enough to continue talking to you." 

If someone isn't vulnerable enough to say anything that could be seen as a "bad signal" that's in turn important information for the girl and probably a good reason to reject him.

Any communication that's intended to be too safe to be rejected is likely boring. It also signals unwillingness to take risks. The icebreaker-type messages are likely boring.

That is a good point. I'm no dating expert but my read is that icebreaker type stuff is normal in the very beginning. If it failed to progress to something more exciting or vulnerable after some period of time, that would be a bad signal, but before that period of time it wouldn't be, and that in my cousin's case it was before then.

You seem to be leaning toward honesty and I agree. I hired about 50 people over 20 years. The posers couldn’t hide their real skill level for long and made themselves and coworkers miserable until we let them go. There were cases where we nurtured an honest person to a higher skill level. If you lie about your skills then you’re not going to get that nurturing, so good luck improving on your own.

For sure don’t send unimpressive signals or be negative. Just show what you have and be friendly. As the author pointed out, the other party is saving you time and hassle if they reject you.

If you lived in a world full of lying then maybe it would make sense to participate, but in my experience there are plenty of good employers and mates who can detect honesty and appreciate it. You are better off working for and dating those ones.