The most commonly used introduction to signaling, promoted both by Robin Hanson and in The Art of Strategy, starts with college degrees. Suppose, there are two kinds of people, smart people and stupid people; and suppose, with wild starry-eyed optimism, that the populace is split 50-50 between them. Smart people would add enough value to a company to be worth a $100,000 salary each year, but stupid people would only be worth $40,000. And employers, no matter how hard they try to come up with silly lateral-thinking interview questions like “How many ping-pong balls could fit in the Sistine Chapel?”, can't tell the difference between them.

Now suppose a certain college course, which costs $50,000, passes all smart people but flunks half the stupid people. A strategic employer might declare a policy of hiring (for a one year job; let's keep this model simple) graduates at $100,000 and non-graduates at $40,000.

Why? Consider the thought process of a smart person when deciding whether or not to take the course. She thinks “I am smart, so if I take the course, I will certainly pass. Then I will make an extra $60,000 at this job. So my costs are $50,000, and my benefits are $60,000. Sounds like a good deal.”

The stupid person, on the other hand, thinks: “As a stupid person, if I take the course, I have a 50% chance of passing and making $60,000 extra, and a 50% chance of failing and making $0 extra. My expected benefit is $30,000, but my expected cost is $50,000. I'll stay out of school and take the $40,000 salary for non-graduates.”

...assuming that stupid people all know they're stupid, and that they're all perfectly rational experts at game theory, to name two of several dubious premises here. Yet despite its flaws, this model does give some interesting results. For example, it suggests that rational employers will base decisions upon - and rational employees enroll in - college courses, even if those courses teach nothing of any value. So an investment bank might reject someone who had no college education, even while hiring someone who studied Art History, not known for its relevance to derivative trading.

We'll return to the specific example of education later, but for now it is more important to focus on the general definition that X signals Y if X is more likely to be true when Y is true than when Y is false. Amoral self-interested agents after the $60,000 salary bonus for intelligence, whether they are smart or stupid, will always say “Yes, I'm smart” if you ask them. So saying “I am smart” is not a signal of intelligence. Having a college degree is a signal of intelligence, because a smart person is more likely to get one than a stupid person.

Life frequently throws us into situations where we want to convince other people of something. If we are employees, we want to convince bosses we are skillful, honest, and hard-working. If we run the company, we want to convince customers we have superior products. If we are on the dating scene, we want to show potential mates that we are charming, funny, wealthy, interesting, you name it.

In some of these cases, mere assertion goes a long way. If I tell my employer at a job interview that I speak fluent Spanish, I'll probably get asked to talk to a Spanish-speaker at my job, will either succeed or fail, and if I fail will have a lot of questions to answer and probably get fired - or at the very least be in more trouble than if I'd just admitted I didn't speak Spanish to begin with. Here society and its system of reputational penalties help turn mere assertion into a credible signal: asserting I speak Spanish is costlier if I don't speak Spanish than if I do, and so is believable.

In other cases, mere assertion doesn't work. If I'm at a seedy bar looking for a one-night stand, I can tell a girl I'm totally a multimillionaire and feel relatively sure I won't be found out until after that one night - and so in this she would be naive to believe me, unless I did something only a real multimillionaire could, like give her an expensive diamond necklace.

How expensive a diamond necklace, exactly?  To absolutely prove I am a millionaire, only a million dollars worth of diamonds will do; $10,000 worth of diamonds could in theory come from anyone with at least $10,000. But in practice, people only care so much about impressing a girl at a seedy bar; if everyone cares about the same amount, the amount they'll spend on the signal depends mostly on their marginal utility of money, which in turn depends mostly on how much they have. Both a millionaire and a tenthousandaire can afford to buy $10,000 worth of diamonds, but only the millionaire can afford to buy $10,000 worth of diamonds on a whim. If in general people are only willing to spend 1% of their money on an impulse gift, then $10,000 is sufficient evidence that I am a millionaire.

But when the stakes are high, signals can get prohibitively costly. If a dozen millionaires are wooing Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, and willing to spend arbitrarily much money on her - and if they all believe Helen will choose the richest among them - then if I only spend $10,000 on her I'll be outshone by a millionaire who spends the full million. Thus, if I want any chance with her at all, then even if I am genuinely the richest man around I might have to squander my entire fortune on diamonds.

This raises an important point: signaling can be really horrible. What if none of us are entirely sure how much Helen's other suitors have? It might be rational for all of us to spend everything we have on diamonds for her. Then twelve millionaires lose their fortunes, eleven of them for nothing. And this isn't some kind of wealth transfer - for all we know, Helen might not even like diamonds; maybe she locks them in her jewelry box after the wedding and never thinks about them again. It's about as economically productive as digging a big hole and throwing money into it.

If all twelve millionaires could get together beforehand and compare their wealth, and agree that only the wealthiest one would woo Helen, then they could all save their fortunes and the result would be exactly the same: Helen marries the wealthiest. If all twelve millionaires are remarkably trustworthy, maybe they can pull it off. But if any of them believe the others might lie about their wealth, or that one of the poorer men might covertly break their pact and woo Helen with gifts, then they've got to go through with the whole awful “everyone wastes everything they have on shiny rocks” ordeal.

Examples of destructive signaling are not limited to hypotheticals. Even if one does not believe Jared Diamond's hypothesis that Easter Island civilization collapsed after chieftains expended all of their resources trying to out-signal each other by building larger and larger stone heads, one can look at Nikolai Roussanov's study on how the dynamics of signaling games in US minority communities encourage conspicuous consumption and prevent members of those communities from investing in education and other important goods.

The Art of Strategy even advances the surprising hypothesis that corporate advertising can be a form of signaling. When a company advertises during the Super Bowl or some other high-visibility event, it costs a lot of money. To be able to afford the commercial, the company must be pretty wealthy; which in turn means it probably sells popular products and isn't going to collapse and leave its customers in the lurch. And to want to afford the commercial, the company must be pretty confident in its product: advertising that you should shop at Wal-Mart is more profitable if you shop at Wal-Mart, love it, and keep coming back than if you're likely to go to Wal-Mart, hate it, and leave without buying anything. This signaling, too, can become destructive: if every other company in your industry is buying Super Bowl commercials, then none of them have a comparative advantage and they're in exactly the same relative position as if none of them bought Super Bowl commercials - throwing money away just as in the diamond example.

Most of us cannot afford a Super Bowl commercial or a diamond necklace, and less people may build giant stone heads than during Easter Island's golden age, but a surprising amount of everyday life can be explained by signaling. For example, why did about 50% of readers get a mental flinch and an overpowering urge to correct me when I used “less” instead of “fewer” in the sentence above? According to Paul Fussell's “Guide Through The American Class System” (ht SIAI mailing list), nitpicky attention to good grammar, even when a sentence is perfectly clear without it, can be a way to signal education, and hence intelligence and probably social class. I would not dare to summarize Fussell's guide here, but it shattered my illusion that I mostly avoid thinking about class signals, and instead convinced me that pretty much everything I do from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night is a class signal. On flowers:

Anyone imagining that just any sort of flowers can be presented in the front of a house without status jeopardy would be wrong. Upper-middle-class flowers are rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis, and roses, except for bright-red ones. One way to learn which flowers are vulgar is to notice the varieties favored on Sunday-morning TV religious programs like Rex Humbard's or Robert Schuller's. There you will see primarily geraniums (red are lower than pink), poinsettias, and chrysanthemums, and you will know instantly, without even attending to the quality of the discourse, that you are looking at a high-prole setup. Other prole flowers include anything too vividly red, like red tulips. Declassed also are phlox, zinnias, salvia, gladioli, begonias, dahlias, fuchsias, and petunias. Members of the middle class will sometimes hope to mitigate the vulgarity of bright-red flowers by planting them in a rotting wheelbarrow or rowboat displayed on the front lawn, but seldom with success.

Seriously, read the essay.

In conclusion, a signal is a method of conveying information among not-necessarily-trustworthy parties by performing an action which is more likely or less costly if the information is true than if it is not true. Because signals are often costly, they can sometimes lead to a depressing waste of resources, but in other cases they may be the only way to believably convey important information.

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Be warned! Signaling that you understand signaling is a terrible signal, because it throws all your other signals into doubt. Revealing that you are optimizing your signaling separately (for example, talking about "PUA") is among the worst signals of all.

Be warned! Signaling that you understand signaling is a terrible signal, because it throws all your other signals into doubt.

This is the opposite of true. People want allies that are competent signalers. Explicitly talking about signalling is in most cases a bad idea and usually a signal that you don't understand signalling or respect it sufficiently.

Revealing that you are optimizing your signaling separately (for example, talking about "PUA") is among the worst signals of all.

To the extent that there are "worst signals of all" rather than signals being dependent on context and goals, talking about PUA wouldn't be near the top. There are more than enough cases where it is either neutral or positive---especially when that ridiculous acronym isn't used.

Yes, in a world of shifting coalitions and subcontrancting, a lot of signaling consists of not signaling our abilities directly, but rather signaling our ability to signal our willingness to signal our abilities.
I think there's a distinction between them possessing a generalised skill in signalling and them being engaged in attempting to influence you via signalling. (Consider "He's charming" vs. "he's trying to charm me"). Possibly people resent the implied disrespect in trying to alter their behaviour cia signalling not argument.
It's helpful here to remember the difference between you figuring out that I'm attempting to influence you (whether via signalling or any other route), and my expressing to you (whether via signalling or any other route) that I'm attempting to influence you.

What you're saying rings true, and a lot of people agree with you, but is it actually right? Is it testable? I can think of plenty of counterexamples, by people who look like they know they're doing. But I can't think of anyone whom I just want to grab and yell at: "you'd be so effective if you'd just shut up about the signaling already!"

I can think of one, buts its not a great example.
I speculate that some signals gain their effectiveness from being costly, while others gain their effectiveness from mere association with costly signals. Telling a boss that you got a college degree in order to signal to the job market that you would be a good job prospect is not likely to hurt your chances of getting that job. But, telling potential mates that you dress nice to increase your chances of sleeping with them, but have to keep an eye out for deals and frequent thrift shops to maintain your upper class dress style, will not, ceteris paribus, increase your chances. (Obviously this depends on the particulars of the individuals involved in such a discussion, as this would probably not apply to many LessWrongers who could be aware of signalling and find your optimization thereof inherently attractive.)
Remember, a good signal is one that is harmful if false. I don't think many employers are going to be bothered by the idea that you went to college because you wanted to get a prestigious job - especially since admitting to that also implies that the job you're interviewing for is prestigious and one you desire. Equally, in the right relationship, admitting that you use PUA techniques is simply going to make you seem more honest. If you're trying to manipulate or trick them in to dating you, it's a horrible idea, since they'll start picking apart all your lies and misdirections. If you've genuinely an honest, upright person towards them, it's great, because they'll start looking for falsehoods and not find any - which means they'll trust you more in the future. (This is from personal experience - one 4 year relationship and one 9 month relationship. Yes, at the same time. Yes, they know about each other. Yes, this is a very nice position to be in :))
Depends on how exactly do you "signal that you understand signalling". The problem may not be the topic being signalled, but choosing a wrong way to signal it. For example, if you are frequently seen with attractive sexual partners, then I think it will not make you look bad if you admit that you have some cool know-how, and you are willing to share it for a lot of money. On the other hand, if you are never seen with attractive sexual partners, but you talk all the time about the know-how you have from internet, even when no one is willing to listen... that is very bad signalling.
Maybe, but half the point of good signalling is that it can't be easily faked.
While this may be generally true, there are a few situations where being open about your signaling can be a status gain: * Trivial example: counter-signaling * When you're teaching skill X, pointing out how you are using skill X as an example (but it can't be the only one) * When the signal isn't reduced simply by knowing about it. "I'm doing X and there's nothing you can do to stop me" is generally a very powerful pattern, though it costs you a lot if you can't actually do X * When the signal you talk about explicitly is not the only signal you're using. The links in wmorgan's comment are an example of this. If you write an article on "how to do Y", readers will tend to assume you're very good at Y and a set of related skills, not just at the exact set you outlined in the article. By explicitly talking about a medium-strength signal you're sending out a much stronger signal.
Maybe he's countersignalling, deliberately offering a superficially-negative signal in order to signal that he doesn't need to send the "expected" superficially-positive signal. See this article, also by Yvain.

I enjoyed this post.

It also hints at the notion of signaling equilibria. Consider the Helen of Troy example - this is clearly not an equilibrium, because Helen ends up marrying a bankrupt. Soon "spends lots of money on diamonds" will no longer be a signal of wealth, but will instead be a signal of profligacy - as indeed it is where I live. A man walking around in flashy jewellery would be considered low-class, presumably because in the past there has been exactly this signaling reversal.

In a stable signaling equilibrium, the signal needs to be hard-to-fake. This is why easy-to-fake signals are unstable - in the flowers example, the proles can and will catch on, and switch to the upper-middle-class flowers, so the upper-middle-class have to keep moving to stay ahead of them. The same phenomenon is seen in baby names, where upper-middle-class names become prole after a generation.

One thing I would have preferred is a discussion of the positive externalities of signaling, not just the negative ones. For example, if Yvain and lukeprog are both trying to signal their superior intelligence by writing insightful posts, this may get into an "arms race" for them, losing utility. However, the Lesswrong community gains utility overall. I think the externalities of signaling are generally positive in the real world, they only tend to be negative in what are anyway zero-sum games (e.g. begging).

One thing I would have preferred is a discussion of the positive externalities of signaling, not just the negative ones. For example, if Yvain and lukeprog are both trying to signal their superior intelligence by writing insightful posts, this may get into an "arms race" for them, losing utility. However, the Lesswrong community gains utility overall. I think the externalities of signaling are generally positive in the real world, they only tend to be negative in what are anyway zero-sum games (e.g. begging).

You have just summarized "civilisation" in a nutshell.

...and still counts himself king of infinite space.
Looks like your signaling backfired in this instance.
Yeah, I noticed that.
How does generating insightful posts end up being negative utility for them? Unless they don't LIKE generating insightful posts, which seems doubtful.
I am assuming that it takes effort to generate insightful posts, and that, for sufficiently large numbers of posts, the disutility of the effort predominates.
I have a very hard time envisioning them being driven by signaling to do far more productive work than they ought to for their own good. This is because it was specified that the work remain high quality. If you work yourself to the bone (producing negative utility for yourself), the product will be sub-par.
Every now and then, I've neglected college assignments due to being more driven to write a post (for LW or elsewhere). E.g. The Curse of Identity lost me some points for a course grade, because I was so caught up with writing it that I didn't go to an exercise session that would have earned me the points. Of course, whether or not this was overall disutility for myself is debatable.
If you work for maximum signaling value, what is the likelihood that you are also working for maximum productive value? Unless the signalling is completely without noise, the most effective signalling behavior will be less productive than the most productive behavior.

A simple, interesting, complementary fact is that the cigarette manufacturers all saw profits skyrocket when laws started banning cigarette ads on TV. All of their products are largely interchangeable, so advertising doesn't tell you anything new about the product, it just builds brand loyalty. So it saves everyone costly signalling.

It's also extremely difficult for new cigarette manufacturers to break into the market. It's very hard to use a really clever ad campaign to increase your market share when you're not allowed to advertise on TV. Curiously, this may actually harm consumers, in that it prevents competition from lowering cigarette prices. I suppose this analogizes to the idea that if everyone were suddenly banned from displaying their wealth, it would be very difficult to woo Helen of Troy unless you had clearly shown your wealth prior to the ban. Thus, banning signalling can lead to losses, as the wealthiest suitor may be unable to woo Helen if he came to the game too late.

A simple, interesting, complementary fact is that the cigarette manufacturers all saw profits skyrocket when laws started banning cigarette ads on TV. All of their products are largely interchangeable, so advertising doesn't tell you anything new about the product, it just builds brand loyalty. So it saves everyone costly signalling.

That's interesting. Do you have a cite?

I assume the existing cigarette manufacturers demand large profit margins for their products. Why can't new cigarette manufacturers enter the market with cheap product and gain some brand loyalty just by being there? (they won't have to spend on costly advertising for that, since it is prohibited by law) Then they can raise prices or introduce premium versions of their product.
Because they can't utilize economies of scale or amortize their fixed costs across as large a production run as the large established companies can. Unless the established companies are priced very far above their minimum marginal cost, the small company would be running at a significant loss to undercut them.

I had long ago (but after being heavily influenced by Overcoming Bias) thought that signaling could be seen simply as a corollary to Bayes' theorem. That is, when one says something, one knows that its effect on a listener will depend on the listener's rational updating on the fact that one said it. If one wants the listener to behave as if X is true, one should say something that the listener would only expect in case X is true.

Thinking in this way, one quickly arrives at conclusions like "oh, so hard-to-fake signals are stronger" and "if everyone starts sending the same signal in the same way, that makes it a lot weaker", which test quite well against observations of the real world.

Powerful corollary: we should expect signaling, along with these basic properties, to be prominent in any group of intelligent minds. For example, math departments and alien civilizations. (Non-example: solitary AI foom.)

Your math department example reminds me of a few experiences. From time to time, I'd be present when a small group of 3-4 professors were quietly discussing roadblocks in their research. Problems would be introduced, mentioning a number of unexpectedly connected fields, Symplectic This-Thats, and the Cohomology of Riff-Raffs. Eventually as the speaker relaxed and their anxiety settled, it would turn out that they were having trouble with an inequality and lost a constant along the way. So, the group would get to work, perhaps they would be able to fix the issue, then the next speaker in the circle would start to announce his problem. What was surprising to me, was that they were not strangers. Most had been friends for over a decade. I wonder if the others were even still listening to the name-dropping. The context it provided wasn't at all helpful for finding a typo, that's for sure. I suppose it may be nice for "Keeping up with the Joneses", so to speak.
This article made me think the same thing. Signaling is essentially gaming Bayes Theorem: providing what one believes others to count as evidence of appropriate strength to get them to update to a desired conclusion.

Possibly a side issue, but one motivation for signalling occurs when measurement is difficult for some reason e.g. regulation.

Giving prospective employees an IQ test can be quite hazardous for the employer.

Spending $50,000 on college - and incurring toxic student debt in the process - to prove something that can be demonstrated by a $500 test seems strange, in the absence of other factors. Particularly when colleges use a near-IQ test (SAT) as one important criterion for admission!

College degrees are better signals for conscientiousness than intelligence, which is no coincidence, since employers in real life care more about conscientiousness.


College degrees are better signals for conscientiousness than intelligence,

I doubt this is true. I've seen research that claims that on average, college students spend less than an hour a day studying. I've attended 3 universities in my life (undergrad to grad school), and skipping classes frequently, dressing like a slob in class, and skipping the required reading seem typical. If I cared mostly about conscientiousness, I would be more impressed by someone holding down a job at McDonald's for 4 years than graduating college, because a McDonald's manager has no problem with firing someone who skips work frequently. Most college professors don't even take attendance.

Yet long-term McDonald's employees get very little career boost from this in applying for jobs at Goldman Sachs or whatever. A kid who manages an Art History degree at Harvard while mostly partying and doing the minimal work to pass has a vastly better chance than the a long-term McDonald's employee with a sterling letter of recommendation from his boss.

which is no coincidence, since employers in real life care more about conscientiousness.

This is vastly over-simplified. I did an internship at a firm that designs ... (read more)

You presume that "attendance" is the valued part of conscientiousness. Keep in mind that the students who are routinely skipping class and their required reading either failed out of college (and thus lack a degree to signal with), or succeeded despite this (and therefor can probably be trusted to meet deadlines even if their appearance is shabby and their attendance atrocious) If the job is "write a first draft of the novel by September", with no need to coordinate with an editor until then, then attendance is completely irrelevant to job performance. The same is probably true for a great number of other jobs (many programming jobs require team work, many others can be done by a single person working alone, etc.) I'd consider the college graduate far more qualified - I know they can handle a deadline and open-ended long-term tasks, and even if they appear to be slacking off, I can trust that they have the conscientiousness required to pull through in the end.
No I didn't. That was just one illustrative example. I also included this: Getting a sterling letter of recommendation means more than showing up. At McDonald's, praise from a manager would probably be very close proxy for conscientiousness. Note that you're just assuming that what lets the college kid succeed in passing in the end is conscientiousness. You could just as easily say, "I can trust that they have the intelligence required to pull through in the end." In fact that would be an obviously better fit, since someone who slacked off all semester isn't likely to make up for all the studying in hours that other students did. Instead he or she will rely on intelligence to quickly grasp enough concepts to pass.
Fair enough.
If they accurately estimate the amount of time that they must spend to get the job done to the specified quality (get some specified GPA, for example), and then put forth that effort, then they have demonstrated some combination of intelligence and conscientiousness. It doesn't matter to me if they are smart enough to succeed while partying every night or smart and conscientious enough to study three nights a week and pass, or conscientious enough to study five nights a week and pass, because their performance is adequate in every case. Lots of jobs are perceived to require attendance, even in the white collar realm. For those jobs, a college degree is less effective signalling than a work history showing a long employment at a job that requires attendance.
If employers cared more about intelligence than conscientiousness, you'd think a college admission would suffice for employment. (Heck, I don't know, maybe it does with certain colleges.) But as wedrifid points out, this would require the system to be sane, which is not that likely. Of course it is. It is a single sentence, not a detailed map of the desired hiring conditions for every job in the world.

Using the term over-simplified was my attempt at generosity. As presently stated, your claim is entirely wrong. Intelligence is the single best predictor of job performance for all but the most narrowly-focused manual tasks, see for example Ree & Earles, Current Directions in Psychological Science vol. 1, No. 3 (Jun., 1992), pp. 86-89.

The strong claim you made in your original comment was entirely false, and I get the impression you were just speculating wildly about something you don't actually know much about.


After intelligence, Conscientiousness is probably the single best predictor of job success since it predicts even after controlling for IQ, education level, etc. (Cribbing from my usual footnote, the best starting point is the meta-analysis )

It's important to note that employers are not seeking to maximize employee performance. They're seeking to maximize the difference between the value provided by the employee and the wage provided to the employee.
As doubly pointed out, the system is unlikely to be sane. In an insane system, you cannot predict that most employers will even know that intelligence is the best predictor of performance, let alone that they will effectively apply the best available method to select candidates by this criterion. The fact is, from personal observation (which I admit is anecdotal evidence from a tiny, biased sample size), employers generally do not care to effectively figure this out. All employers I've encountered have had an attitude of wanting everything to "just work" (through the magic of being awesome, presumably) and land them the best employees because they will it to be so. If this would expand to the population in a proportional manner, it would mean that the vast majority of "employers" are either simply acting irrationally for this situation (AKA not only is the system insane, but nearly all its players are, too) or do not assign sufficient utility to obtaining better employees for it to be worth the perceived cost of finding them. I believe this was the main point being made. It's not being argued that intelligence makes you a better actual performer, what is being argued is that employers do not effectively pick the most intelligent candidates, or worse, that they are not even remotely aware of what they should select for, and that they believe it is relatively worthless for them to attempt to find out more on this subject than they already know.
Most employers want a track of record of doing job X successfully when hiring people to do job X. If job X requires intelligence, then they will be indirectly selecting intelligent people ... whilst filtering out "smart but doesn't get things done" people. Seems sane to me.
Yes, of course. These particular traits you have deigned to consider for your worthy evaluation do seem, to me as well, perfectly sane. I think you forgot to activate your Real World Logic coprocessor before replying, and I'm being sarcastic and offensive in this response. In more serious words, these particular selected characteristics do not comprise the entirety of "the system" aforementioned. I've said that the system is /unlikely/ to be sane, as I do not have complete information on the entire logic and processes in it. I also think we're working off of different definitions of "sane" - here, IIRC, I was using a technical version that could be better expressed as "close to perfectly rational, in the same way perfect logicians can be in theoretical formal logic puzzles".
Insane is not an obvious synonym for imperfect. Opinions vary on the role of intelligence in the first place
That leads to a much-noted chicken-and-egg problem... but that aside, for all but the most menial and interchangeable X, employers don't generally have access to data about how well and how long prospective hires have done X. They have access to candidates' word for how well they've done more or less imperfectly related work, and usually to recommendations from their former employers and coworkers -- but the former is unreliable, and the latter demonstrates only that the candidate isn't a complete schlub. I haven't read the paper in the ancestor, but it seems reasonable to me that IQ would often end up being a better predictor of performance, given these constraints.
One thing being imperfect doesn't make another thing better.
No. But it is evidence for the other thing being better, when the constraints under question don't apply to that other thing. Of course, while we're talking evidence, we shouldn't neglect the fact that the traditional interview/resume method has reached fixation and doesn't look to be in immediate danger of being displaced. But "current practice" doesn't necessarily imply "optimal" or even "best known", especially when psychometric methods are legally problematic.
They don't have to, they just have to observe what other successful employers are doing and copy that, the ones who copy the correct features will themselves be more successful, a.k.a., memetic evolution works.
Downvoted for uncharitable reading. knb offered an alternative one-sentence oversimplification: "reliable, polite workers who won't steal from them".

Conformity too. This is a factor often overlooked in discussions of this sort.

(There are in fact two ways in which education signals conformity. The first one is the fact that you have conformed to the social norm that you are supposed to signal your intelligence and conscientiousness with this particular costly and wasteful endeavor, not in some alternative way that would signal these traits just as well. The second one is that you have successfully functioned for several years in an institution that enforces an especially high level of conformity with certain norms of behavior that are especially important in a professional context.)

(Conformity can feel like consistency from the inside.)
Both those things are true but much of that could well be coincidental. Mechanisms for the distribution of prestige, status and affiliation are not always sane from the perspective of the system.
Some employers, for some jobs, care more about conscientiousness. If it's universally true that "employers in real life care more about conscientiousness" then I would be interested to see some evidence. (Perhaps you didn't mean to claim that it's universally true, but only that it's true on average or something. In which case, fair enough.)
That's how I interpreted the parent.
Dear whoever downvoted the above, I regret that after some thought it remains unclear to me what you didn't like and what (if anything) I can or should do to improve. Would you care to offer some more informative feedback? Thanks.
Uncharitably interpreting the parent would be my guess? (I didn't downvote it.)

I read a George Will column where he said that aptitude tests for jobs used to be much more common. Then some employers got sued because racial minorities were doing too poorly on the tests. Requiring a college degree is legally safer than an aptitude test (even though there is at least as much racial disparity in college degrees as aptitude tests).

If you want to be a police officer in New London, Connecticut, you'd better not score too high on the IQ test.

Many people think that if you do poorly on an IQ test, it's because you're stupid. But if you do poorly on the SAT, people doesn't think that says much about your intelligence—perhaps you "don't test well" or you're "smart in a different way."

A new perspective on rational charities and inefficient fuzzy-purchasing:

Donating to charity is an expensive signal of high moral character or status. Enough people have caught on to this signalling method that in order to signal with your donations now, you have to donate to some 'conspicuous consumption'-style charity (kittens with rare diseases, receiving visits from their rockstar idols).

50% chance of failing

Except in real life, the #1 signaling college has a graduation rate of 98% and an average Grade Point Average of A-.

As the saying goes, the "only way to flunk out of Harvard is to die of a heroin overdose."

The signalling is in you being accepted to Harvard. Recall the Ivy Leagues have in place a system that emphasises "holistic admission" instead of the de facto more meritocratic competence indication system of say Caltech. An important part of getting in is having the right extracurricular activities on your resume and often the right activities are the activities that people doing the judging engaged in when young. Especially avoid anything indicating you might be the wrong kind of white person, when it comes to admission they are discriminated against even more than Asians:
Right. A good book on this is Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission. Children of alumni, donors, celebrities, and rich people in general, are favored, as are sports stars. These policies are mostly official but the degree to which they will affect one's chances is not publicly declared. On the other hand, Asians and the wrong kind of white person are disfavored. So, the admissions process has some heavy-duty signaling behind it, in contrast to the declared goals. Presumably the admissions policies are intended to let the future alumni signal that they are not just smart but also famous, athletic, open-minded, generous, and rich. Also on the topic of signaling and top schools: Harvard students are fond of bragging about how little they study, signaling that they are so smart they don't need to.
A high graduation rate doesn't necessarily mean there's no bar. It may mean that the admissions system actually does its job or that people who can't meet the bar self-select away when they see the price tag.
The fictional college of the article only selects incoming students on price.

I have often wondered if anyone has tried to save their acceptance letters from colleges they couldn't afford to go to and show them to employers. Why doesn't this work?

I also wondered, in those years when I was offered two different fellowships and could only accept one according to the rules, why I couldn't put both on my CV. I have, however, very occasionally seen people do this.
Because getting into college isn't a very good signal. People may use it as one if they're not thinking things through, but not if you call their attention to it. It's not a very good signal because it's based on high school (a long time ago) and judged clumsily by admission officers under poor circumstances. Graduating is more of a signal, at least if the college is willing to flunk people. Graduating with difficult electives on your transcript is even more of a signal. And college isn't just signalling. One is expected to have learned there.
So if what's being said here about graduation from Harvard being highly correlated with admission to it (um... no, that's not quite what I mean... but you know what I mean) is true, does it follow that getting into Harvard is a good signal?
Don't expect people to be consistent or logical in how they interpret signals (also, suppose they don't believe higher ed is pure signaling with no value - this is a legitimate out given by dspeyer - all those impressive Harvard grads they've seen were made impressive by the awesome Harvard teachers).
If so the many online learning organizations that sprang up this year seem well positioned to greatly weaken the university system. I'm sceptical that they will. To the first approximation college isn't about education. I however do agree with this: Employers indeed do. This doesn't mean they are right though. Educated people generally don't overtly say college is about signalling, especially if they did well in it. The Universities selling their degrees want to emphasise the value added part and how the 4 year summer camp is a life enriching experience. Parents tend to think they are buying credentials for their children's future employment. I think we have better reasons to trust the parents on this, their incentives seem closer to truth seeking. Thought due to the changes in the past 40 years they are somewhat deluded on how much credentials from a second or third tier college buys you as well as generally underestimating the final cost.
You're clearly not talking about a degree such as engineering - unless you're talking about a summer camp run by sadists.
You're clearly not talking about a degree such as engineering - unless you're talking about a summer camp run by sadists.
How do you learn how to (say) operate scintillators and photomultiplier tubes from online learning organizations? There are skills you just can't practice without hands-on experience. (OTOH I can't see any good reason why in-person attendance would be vital for studying for a degree in English literature, but then again AFAIK attendance is not usually compulsory in such courses. I'd bet the reason why people don't learn stuff online and only show up for exams is that that way it's harder to convince your parents to pay for your rent in another town while you're partying most nights.)

When I was studying under Amotz Zahavi (originator of the handicap principle theory, which is what you're actually discussing), he used to make the exact same points. In fact, he used to say that "no communication is reliable unless it has a cost".

Having this outlook on life in the past 5 years made a lot of things seem very different - small questions like why some people don't use seatbelts and brag about it, or why men on dates leave big tips; but also bigger questions like advertizing, how hierarchical relationships really work, etc.

Also explained a lot about possible origins of (some) altruistic behaviors; Zahavi's favorite examples were from the research he and his wife conducted, wherein they observed small groups of social birds (forgot the species, sorry) where altrusitic behavior is common. And it turns out, it's the dominant birds who behave altrusitically, rather than exploit their weaker brethren - but doing so as a show of strength. My own favorite example is when a lower-status male caught a worm and tried feeding it to the alpha male. The latter proceeded to beat him up, take the morsel, and force-feed it back to the weaker male.

Best course I ever took :)

Related to your point about Super Bowl commercials, here's an article saying that good targeting makes online ads less effective because targeting removes the need for expensive signaling. Though it doesn't cite any hard data.

I had not heard of the less versus fewer distinction mentioned above, and so checked the dictionary; here is the usage note:

Usage note
Even though less has been used before plural nouns ( less words; less men ) since the time of King Alfred, many modern usage guides say that only fewer can be used in such contexts. Less, they say, should modify singular mass nouns ( less sugar; less money ) and singular abstract nouns ( less honesty; less love ). It should modify plural nouns only when they suggest combination into a unit, group, or aggregation: less

... (read more)
Certainly in the circles I'm from in the UK, less/fewer is very much used as a signal. I don't think I could use the 'wrong' one without getting corrected if the audience is sufficiently large. Question: In casual conversation, does the proportion of the time I am corrected increase with the number of people as if they each corrected as iid Bernoulli random variables? (i.e. if I get corrected 1/2 of the time with one other person, then it's 3/4 of the time with 2, 7/8ths of the time with 3 etc.) I suspect that I would be corrected more often than that model predicts in larger groups, because there are more people to signal status to.
This is precisely why I don't correct people's grammar in public settings even when I might in a one-on-one conversation - I don't want to signal being pedantic.
That's another thing. Precise grammar used to indicate education, but now it mostly signals pedantism. I've noticed that different groups correct grammar to different degrees. Many people (e.g. almost everyone on reddit) will correct you if you mix up they're/there/their or use an apostrophe incorrectly, but not very many people will say anything if you dangle a modifier or split an infinitive. And the same people who readily correct well-known errors (they're/there/their) don't like it if you correct a more obscure error.
I'm tempted to correct my past self's grammar by pointing out that "e.g." should be followed by a comma.
There´s a difference there though. Less & fewer mean same thing, so writer using those abnormally isn´t really an error, it´s just something people don´t usually do. They´re , there, their mean different things so correcting those really makes the world better.
The rule as usually understood is that fewer relates to discrete quantities, fewer apples, and less to continuous quantities, less milk. It's possibly rather artificial, and noticeably lacking a counterpart in "more".
Or inversely, they could be less likely to correct you in a larger group because they assume someone else will do it.

I would not dare to summarize Fussell's guide here, but it shattered my illusion that I mostly avoid thinking about class signals, and instead convinced me that pretty much everything I do from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night is a class signal.

This is a very readable and interesting guide, and it may have been dead-on accurate in 1983 when it was written. But the kind of class system he describes, one defined by social signals and not by (say) brute force or even money, can only exist in a unified culture, in which everybody speaks th... (read more)

For example, why did about 50% of readers get a mental flinch and an overpowering urge to correct me when I used “less” instead of “fewer” in the sentence above?

At least you didn't confuse "discreet" and "discrete". That drives me up the wall!

So, what are you signalling with this post?

Oh, the post was just a means to an end; it's the karma I'll use for signaling.

And you with your reply? (Or I with mine, for that matter!)

shminux is obviously signalling "I see what you did there", to elevate his social status.

You're signalling a more-obvious-still "I see what you did there", which presumably isn't worth as much status, but has the added benefit of "calling shminux out", reducing his status gains. Based on karma, your gain seems to be marginally better :)

I'm signalling a tendency to state the obvious verbosely, which, judging from my comment history, isn't worth diddly for status. I'm trying not to speculate on what it means that I make these posts despite that >.>

This is a good, basic, well written introduction to what signaling is. Signaling is a quite vital concept that is often not easy to explain, and so it's nice to have a well written article that explains it well. I definitely will be directing people to this article in the future.

I appreciate the value of the illustrations, but it would be good to find a version that doesn't assume that women are merely materialistic, assessing prospective mates solely on their net worth. Geek communities are often not friendly places for women - some readers will accept the assumptions for the sake of argument, but some are likely to take offence.

Edited when MixedNuts pointed out how confused the original version was. My apologies.

That deep stacking of negatives is confusing. Did you mean: "This version assumes that women are materialistic - worse than just materialistic, it assumes that women assess prospective mates solely on their net worth. It would be good to find a version that doesn't assume that."?
Sorry, I left an extra "not" and an extra "but" in. What a horrible sentence - I apologize. Yes - thank you.

Your numerical model at the beginning looks incoherent.

Suppose, there are two kinds of people, smart people and stupid people; and suppose, with wild starry-eyed optimism, that the populace is split 50-50 between them. Smart people would add enough value to a company to be worth a $100,000 salary each year, but stupid people would only be worth $40,000.

If employers could never distinguish between smart and stupid, even after hiring, then they could select randomly and pay $70,000 per year (the expected value per hire given the 50:50 ratio). If they can... (read more)

It's not coherent so much as contrived, but your points are valid. But is a more realistic example really that useful for the purpose it's serving?

I'm curious, was the Art History comment a dig at Michael Lewis?

2Scott Alexander
I didn't even know about Michael Lewis until I just looked him up. I could have used "underwater basket weaving", but I wasn't sure everyone would get the reference.
Could have hyperlinked it to the article.
On a slightly more constructive note, the game theoretic analysis of signals has also been used to analyse and suggest improvements to the use of forensic evidence in law. Roger Koppl's two articles "Epistemic Systems" and "Epistemics for Forensics" go into this in quite some detail, with the former laying out the mathematical framework and the later providing an experimental test of some of the hypotheses drawn from that framework. I use this a little bit in my article on blinding and expert evidence, available here:

What are the costs associated with flowers?

I don't know enough about gardening to have a reasonable opinion on that, but here are some possibilities:

  • It takes resources in the form of studying fashion, or hiring someone else to do it for you, in order to know which flowers are in, and they're not the ones you expect. Compare to fashion in clothing; I'm probably unfashionable, and this correctly signals that I don't have enough time to keep up with trends or enough hip friends to advise me on them.

  • The high-status flowers are harder/more expensive to grow than the low status flowers. Compare to his discussion on gravel driveways being higher-status than concrete because they require more maintenance.

  • The high-status flowers are considered ugly to most untrained people, so they're a net loss unless you know you're associating with people who have been trained in taste. Compare to modern academic music, which will sound unpleasant to an untrained ear; therefore if you like it it signals not only that you yourself are trained, but that you expect the people who judge you based on your musical tastes to be trained. Hence the "any flower too vividly red is prole" comment.

  • The high-status flowers would look pretentious to low-status people (I realize this is partly an explanatory regress). For example, anyone can give their kid a name that sounds upper-class, but if the kid is poor they risk looking stupid.

I don't know where Fussell got this gardening thing. Coming from a family of WASPy upper-middle class gardeners, I've never heard any mention of flowers being "tacky" (which would have been code for "lower-class"). And none of the flowers he names as upper-class are especially high maintenance except for roses, which could also be lower-class depending on color. Things I would consider upper-class are Japanese maples ($400 for a sapling and they take ages to grow), espaliered fruit trees, arbors and gazebos, hedges or topiaries that need a lot of clipping, and any layout that looks artistic enough to have come from a landscape designer. One thing that makes a garden look arriviste to me is a sea of mulch with annuals plopped in them at regimented intervals. I tried to find pictures of gardens that could be considered upper class - does the Jaqueline Kennedy garden at the White House seem good enough? Because it's full of topiary but also geraniums, salvia, chrysanthemums, and something I think are begonias (all identified as lower class by the article).
It is controversial that one must signal high status from the White House.
USA Presidents routinely try to signal lower class than they have.
Sturgeon's law applies to modern academic music, and, depending how you define 'academic', may be an underestimation. Much of that 90% is the 'academic' part of academic music, and for it, this is not a matter of training on the part of the listener. You can have a superbly trained ear, able to accurately play music by Harry Partch, whose music often involves more than 12 steps per octave, and not 'get' it. You can write highly technical music of your own with layers so subtle that the performers don't notice them for months, and not 'get' it. The target 'academic' music is aimed at has nothing to do with sounding pleasant. But yes, there are definitely classes here, and though ignorance of music is hardly a signal at all, knowledge of it is a pretty strong one.
They're expensive and easy to misuse.
Note that "more likely or less costly" is a disjunction. Which means it may be, on this article's account, that high-status flowers are not costlier than low-status flowers, merely that they are reliably less common among high-status flower-displayers. Of course, this also raises the possibility that this account is exactly backwards, and the only thing that makes the flowers "high-status" is the fact that high-status people display them; if high-status people started displaying bright red flowers in rotting wheelbarrows, that would shortly thereafter become a status signal. On that account, the flowers aren't a status signal at all. This is an empirical dispute; we can look at what happens when high-status people display low-status flowers. On the first account, we would expect the status of the people to go down (that is, third-party observers would think less well of them, keeping all other factors fixed). On the second account, we would expect the status of the flowers to go up. (My own expectation is that we would actually find it depends on several other factors, because both accounts are woefully oversimplified, but that something like what Yvain describes is in fact going on.)
It can be even more complicated than that (previously mentioned on Lesswrong here).
Yup. As I said, my own expectation is that it depends on several other factors.
Possibly the the time spent in figuring out which ones are classy as opposed to 'wannabe' or 'cheesy' or 'trying too hard' or 'lower class'. Probably difficult to figure out for any given group to which you are signalling you belong, unless you actually do belong to that group.
You have to spend time taking care of them.


The stupid person, on the other hand, thinks: “As a stupid person, if I take the course, I have a 50% chance of passing and making $60,000 extra, and a 50% chance of failing and making $0 extra. My expected benefit is $30,000, but my expected cost is $50,000. I'll stay out of school and take the $40,000 salary for non-graduates.”

...assuming that stupid people all know they're stupid, and that they're all perfectly rational experts at game theory

There's no game theory in that calculation.

Plus, it pretends college is instantaneous and the benefits of college last one year.
And it also pretends that there's only one employer and that he makes only one hiring decision, and that failing out of college is just as expensive as graduating.

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No, because "throwing money into it" is better writing.
You know, doing it with intrinsically valuable money is a thing, but if you do that with fiat money you just cause enough deflation to make everyone richer, and the game is not negative-sum. (Or is it? I'm not terribly knowledgeable about macroeconomics, so I might be missing something.)
It is still wasteful, because it involves digging an unnecessary hole.
If you throw your money into the hole its not negative sum, true- it is zero sum assuming that your ratio of the monetary pool reflects your buying power. Either way, you make everyone richer but yourself.
I was going to say something similar. However, note that the digging of the hole in order to dispose of money actually is wasteful - personally I"d probably replace with "digging a big hole and immediately filling it in again", as that is not only uncontroversially pointless, it is also almost the canonical example of a pointless thing to do.

Link to Paul Fussell's “Guide Through The American Class System” essay is dead, here is an archive of the page.

That article was an interesting read but now I'm having a bout of status anxiety :/.


Seriously, read the essay.

On the other hand:

The sad thing is that by the time one's an adult, these stigmata are virtually unalterable and ineffaceable. We're pretty well stuck for life in the class we're raised in. Even adopting all the suggestions implied in this chapter, embracing all the high-class locutions and abjuring the low ones, won't help much.

One of my favorite James quotes: William James, The Principles of Psychology 1890, Chapter IV

This sentence is a HUGE RED FLAG: “it shattered my illusion that I mostly avoid thinking about class signals, and instead convinced me that pretty much everything I do from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night is a class signal.”

If signaling can explain everything, then it is in the same category as Freudian psychoanalysis—unfalsifiable and therefore useless.

The idea that signaling explains everything leads to the idea that “people who say that they don’t bother with signaling and don’t use the symbols available to them are REALLY just signali... (read more)

Signals by Brian Skyrms is a great book in this area. It shows how signalling can evolve in even quite simple set-ups.

Also available for a short time at

Is "Guide Through the American Class System" supposed to be on the MIRI research guide?

Or where can I find this mailing list to which Yvain refers?

The mailing list is (presumably) just where he heard about the book. (In case you don't know this, SIAI is MIRI's old name.) The chapter of the book at the defunct link is still available at the Internet Archive.

Because signals are often costly, they can sometimes lead to a depressing waste of resources, but in other cases they may be the only way to believably convey important information.

The cost of conveying information should not be described as a "waste".

Does this means all fashion is signalling ?

Does this means all fashion is signalling ?

What? Yes, of course. It is close to the epitome of pure signalling!

What else could it be?
Can't speak for the OP, but I would say almost all of it is, yes. I mean, if summer fashions tend to involve lighter-weight fabrics and fewer layers than winter fashions in the US, that fact probably can be explained without reference to signaling theory, but that's the exception.

If you enjoyed Paul Fussell I highly recommed Bourdieu's "Distinction".

It addresses many of the criticisms about class and taste claims expressed in the comments: It is extremely data-driven instead of relying on 'common knowledge'. It describes not only how different classes' tastes differ but how those difference evolve over time, and not only a single hierarchy of classes but the different fields in which classes operate.

Bourdieu doesn't seem to be part of the lesswrong canon, but could well be. He has an undeserved reputation as (only) a theo... (read more)

One non-obvious implication of signaling theory is how attempts at egalitarian norms/policy can have bad effects. The direct effect of these policies and/or norms is to make it easier for people not possessing some desired characteristic to emulate the behavior of those that do. The effect is to make it harder to signal, and thus results in more resources wasted on signaling games.

More about gardens and signalling: Michael Pollan's Second Nature has a section about class and regional signals in seed catalogues.


This post, by its contents and tone, seems to really emphasize the downside of signaling. So let me play the other side.

Enabling signaling can add or subtract a huge amount of value from what would happen without signaling. You can tweak your initial example to get a "rat race" outcome where everyone, including the stupid people, sends a costly signal that ends up being completely uninformative (since everyone sends it). But you can also make it prohibitively mentally painful for stupid people to go to college, versus neutral or even enjoyable... (read more)

This relates to something I've wondered about-- why did ancient Greece leave a tremendous legacy while the slave-holding southern states and the Confederacy didn't?
If you mean a scientific legacy, it is not clear to me that this is true - Thomas Jefferson was Virginian, and though he was a 'lesser' scientist than Franklin just over the Mason/Dixon line, he was quite significant. But supposing it is so, there are so many reasons it seems to me difficult to find out which were most critical. * The Greeks were largely surrounded by less erudite regions (at least, immediately so surrounded). Not so with the southern states, which were competing with the north and Europe at least. * When the Greeks were taken over by the Romans, the Romans spread their Greek Wisdom(tm) far and wide. The North... didn't. * The Greeks had far more time to produce work of note. * The southern states had resource extraction economies.

why did about 50% of readers get a mental flinch and an overpowering urge to correct me when I used “less” instead of “fewer” in the sentence above?

I didn't, and I suspect the percentage of readers who did is much smaller.

Upvote this comment if you didn't notice, or weren't bothered by, the use of “less” instead of “fewer”.


I am also a really fast speed-reader, and my mind tends to ignore these sorts of words.

I remember one time I opened a fortune cookie, glanced at the slip, laughed, and repeated it to my friend, with perfect grammar. He grabbed the slip, actually read the slip (which apparently had had horrible grammar mistakes), and demanded to know how I had managed to read the slip while unintentionally correcting all the grammar mistakes in it.

Similar here.
6Scott Alexander
I stand corrected; apparently about 20% would have been more accurate. But to corroborate Alicorn's story, though, I kept catching myself trying to remove that error during the proofreading stage before I remembered what I was doing.
I actually didn't even notice it until it was pointed out in the OP, but I think this might be abnormal for me; I generally feel the need to correct errors in grammar or word choice. Outside of signalling my own percieved intelligence there isn't really a reason for me to do this for most of what I read, so I am inclined to agree with the statement. So even though I didn't actually perform the act, I'd put myself within his "people who would flinch" at this category, even though I didn't happen to flinch at that particular error.
My take on this -- based on what I read on Language Log, mostly -- is that there are two classes of grammatical “errors” (though in some cases the distinction may be not completely clear-cut): 1) actual processing slip-ups due to brain farts or similar resulting in phrasings educated native speakers wouldn't normally use in the relevant registers, even when they're using System 1 (fast) thinking alone, and 2) failure to conform to artificial (or artificially-kept-alive) rules introduced mainly for signalling purposes, and which even native speakers don't normally follow unless they're using System 2 (slow) thinking to do so. If you see a pattern in the kind of errors people make (e.g. so many people using “less” instead of “fewer”), then you're likely dealing with an error of the second kind (unless there's some other explanation for the pattern, e.g. it involves identically- or similarly-sounding words). (In the British National Corpus, “fewer” followed by a plural noun occurs 625 times, whereas and “less” followed by a plural noun occurs 162 times. In actual processing errors, the ratio between the frequency of the correct form and of the wrong form would be much larger than that -- for example, “these” followed by a plural noun occurs 29603 times, whereas “this” followed by a plural noun occurs 259 times.) I can't speak for others, but “actual” errors usually jump out to me even if I'm not using System 2 thinking, whereas violations of artificial rules don't unless I'm looking for them.
There's possibly another category of not keeping up with language shifts. It drives me crazy when people use "jive" when "jibe" is the right word, even though their intended meaning is clear.
I didn't notice or even really care about that, because * the meaning was obvious * I especially give more leeway on multi-regional forums where not everybody uses identical conventions * I rank solidly in the mid-prole category of that quoted class essay, so I shouldn't care! All in all, the article was speculative, but helpful. The essay was interesting, but woefully dated. I have the gut feeling that the essential points remain true but in a modern context not anticipated by the author. I got the impression that he was pointing out things that everyone may know subconsciously, but never would have pointed out publicly.
BTW, did anyone notice that the comma in the parent was before “by” instead of after it where it logically belongs, before I edited it a few seconds ago?

Upvote this comment if you were jarred by the use of “less” instead of “fewer”.

I did. I considered going into the post to fix it before going on to the next sentence. It would have looked very weird if I had been skimming more casually.
You are normally correcting the posts by yourself, rather than telling the authors to do so?
For minor grammatical and formatting errors, yes. Never content.
But you aren't a native speaker, are you? (I notice that you have said elsewhere that you live in Italy.)
I'm not, but I do immediately notice ‘actual’ grammar errors such as “it's” instead of “its” etc. ETA: And my prediction wasn't based on my personal intuition alone, but on what I've read on Language Log.