Does anyone feel "signaling guilt"?

When I have to write something like a CV/Resume/essay for the purpose of admission into a high-status institution (e.g., academia, high-paying job), I feel an insane amount of ugh-field and find myself unable to properly motivate myself into actually focusing on it.

All of it just feels ... dishonest.

It gets worse with more competitive positions; just good ol' Moloch doing what it's good at: race-to-the-bottom, throwing away everything of value for the sake of slightly increasing competitiveness at the margin, etc.

Every time when I have to (fake intentions and emotions / intentionally distort my value system / signal fake compliance / pander to the reviewers by adopting their political stance and lingo / do something solely for the sake of signaling), it feels like I'm corrupting my "soul" via some irreversible process.

Perhaps the concept of "signaling" is infohazardous—I wasn't like this a couple years ago, back when I unconsciously optimized everything for the sole purpose of "appearing good in my resume," completely guilt-free.

Not any more. And no one around me seems to get it.

These days I find myself ... just baffled, as to how my colleagues can even do what they're doing while staying sane. Entire lives, lived without a single shred of real substance, just pure, pure signaling. I read the Moral mazes and understand how institutions select for lizards not actual living-breathing-humans—

And I tried so many things—artificially pumping my short-term motivation with stimulants, outsourcing my writings to GPT-3, trying to compartmentalize my life—none of them work consistently, at least for me.

The only thing that's keeping me going at this point is the tiny, tiny positive-reinforcment from the (false) belief that "I am a rare instance of an actual living-breathing-human who is heroically resisting the selection pressures and fighting against the Evil and Immoral Lizards."

Not for so long. (did I mention that I'm actually supposed to be editing my resume right now?)

Perhaps people actually do feel these signaling guilt but somehow manage to pull themselves together.

Perhaps this is just me conflating my normal akrasia and blaming it on The System.

Perhaps I'm just not Machiavellian enough.
In that case, well, too bad!


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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:27 AM

If you don’t signal the expected way then you are, if not being dishonest, at least misleading people — in many cases it is less honest.

Everyone knows your job application is written to puff you up, and they price it in. If you don’t have the correct amount of puffery, you’re misleading people into thinking you’re worse than you are.

It’s a bad way to communicate and a bad race-to-the-bottom equilibrium but not actually dishonest.

You can write “Dear X” on a letter to a person you don’t know. People used to sign off letters “Your obedient servant”. It evolves for weird signaling reasons but is not taken literally.

Re: infohazards

This seems like a problem with ethics and intelligence in general. The more you know, the more you see how things are connected, the more actions are ethically forbidden to you. Other people do not care, and they still sleep well at night, thinking of themselves as virtuous.

My solution is that I split the ethical considerations into two parts: things I care about, and things I don't.

Things I care about include, for example, not hurting other people. I would try to avoid hurting other people, even if others did it all the time. Because I care intrinsically about people not being hurt more than I care about comparing myself to others. I do the right thing and fuck the rest of the world, kind of.

Thing I do not care about include, for example, honesty about my credentials. Because this is intrinsically a signalling game, there is no real substance behind it. I am not going to plainly lie (that might backfire), but I am not spending any energy on going the extra mile towards honesty. I write the things that seem good, I write them in the way that seems good, I skip the things that don't seem good. If I am technically correct but connotationally misleading, I do not care. The purpose of the CV is to maximize my chances without being technically incorrect; mission accomplished.

Pick your ethical battles, I guess? Worry only about the things that on reflection are worth worrying about?

See also - this particular thing is visible and salient, and you're feeling more guilt than it deserves.

Remember, signaling is rarely content-free - there's a reason it is selected for, and becomes more important over time.  Resumes (especially resumes for jobs with tens of thousands of roughly-similar candidates) are pretty low-information, so don't sweat it too much - the purpose is ONLY to get through the door, and nobody actually cares about it beyond that.  Actual capabilities and work experience is shown (mostly) in the interviews, and then in day-to-day work.  That's far more important, and has a lower ratio of signaling to signal.  

Imagine if you had always been like this, not only during the last time. There is a large problem where people who feel like this are in a huge competitive disadvantage (or end up "corrupted"). And these people tend to be the most ethical ones. It is really not surprising that people tend to get less ethical as one looks at higher status jobs/positions.

Or you can choose to subvert the system from the inside, which would justify your being part of it in the first place, which would justify filling out those CVs and striving to get as much influence as possible in order to be more effective at you future plans to make the system less broken. Imagine yourself in a position to hire others and choosing not to fall into the trap. That would be subverting the system for the better, and you won't get there without getting hired first. Some people would find that motivating enough.

I've felt exactly this way. A tactic that kept me going for another few CV-like things was to pick something orthogonal in my writing to optimize, so I could focus on that while writing what I needed to: writing without the letter 'e', conforming to a meter, writing sentences in alphabetical order, etc.