Countersignaling can backfire if your audience doesn't have enough information about you to start with. For some traits, it's especially dangerous, because you're likely to do it for traits you don't have the credibility to countersignal at all based on a misunderstanding of your relation to the general population.
Countersignaling is "showing off by not showing off" - you understate, avoid drawing attention to, or otherwise downplay your communications of and about some valuable trait you have, because a) you are sure you won't be mistaken for someone with very poor characteristics in that area, and b) signaling could make you look like a merely medium-grade specimen. (Actual medium-grade specimens have to signal to distinguish themselves from low-quality ones.) For instance, if you are so obviously high-status that no one could possibly miss it, it may be both unnecessary and counterproductive to signal status, because this would let others conflate you with mid-status people. So you can show up in a t-shirt and jeans instead of formal wear. If you are so obviously brilliant that no one could possibly think you're some crackpot who wandered in off the street, you can afford to rave a little, while people who have to prove their smarts will find it expedient to keep calm and measured in their communication.
In homogeneous communities, or in any situation where you are well-known, countersignaling is effective. Your traits exceeding some minimum threshold is assumed where everyone's traits so exceed, and so failing to signal is unlikely to give anyone the impression that you have somehow managed to be the only person in the room who is deficient. If you're personally acquainted with the people around whom you attempt countersignaling, your previous signals (or other evidence to the effect that you are awesome) will already have accumulated. It's not necessary to further prove yourself. In other words, if your audience's prior for you being medium-or-good is high enough, then your not signaling is evidence in favor of good over medium; if their prior for your being medium-or-low is too high, then your not signaling is instead evidence in favor of low over medium.
But there are some things you can't effectively countersignal.
Or rather, there are some things that you can't effectively countersignal to some people. The most self-deprecating remarks about your positive qualities, spoken to your dear friends who know your most excellent traits like the backs of their own hands, will be interpreted "correctly", no matter what they're about. For instance, when I explained my change in life plans to people who are very familiar with me, I was able to use the phrasing "I'm dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult"1 because I knew this sounded so unlike me that none of them would take it at face value. Alicorn wouldn't really join a doomsday cult; it must be something else! It elicited curiosity, but not contempt for my cult-joining behavior. To more distant acquaintances, I used the less loaded term "nonprofit". I couldn't countersignal my clever life choices to people who didn't have enough knowledge of my clever life choices; so I had to rely on the connotation of "nonprofit" rather than playing with the word "cult" for my amusement.
Similar to close personal connection, people in a homogeneous environment can readily understand one another's countersignals. Someone who has joined the same cult as me isn't going to get the wrong idea if I call it that, even without much historical data about how sensible I generally am in choosing what comes next in my life. But in the wider world where people really do join real cults that really have severely negative features, there's no way to tell me apart from someone who's joined one of those and might start chanting or something any moment. I would not announce that I had joined a cult when explaining to a TSA agent why I was flying across the country.
The trouble is that it's easy to think one's positive traits are so obvious that no one could miss them when really they aren't. You are not as well known as you think you should be. Your countersignals are more opaque than you think they are. If you tell a stranger you've joined a cult, they will probably think you actually joined a cult.
Here's an example at work: in a homogeneous group of white liberals, talking casually about assorted minority races is commonplace if race is going to be discussed at all. Everybody present knows that the group is a homogeneous group of white liberals. Nobody has reason to suspect that anyone in the room has ever been disposed to practice overt racism of any kind, and odds are that no one in the group is well-informed enough about implicit biases to suspect covert racism (even though that's almost certainly present). So people in the group can countersignal their lack of racism to each other with the loose, casual talk, making generalizations when it's convenient. Nobody listening will take them for "real" racists. And being hyper-concerned with political correctness would make one seem concerned with being racist - it would look like one considered oneself to be in some kind of danger, which doesn't speak kindly of how well one is doing to begin with.
But to an outside observer - especially one who is informed about implicit biases, or has personal experiences with how ineffectively people screen off casual attitudes and prevent them from causing bad behavior - feeling that one is in this kind of danger, and speaking carefully to reflect that, is the best-case scenario. To an outside observer, the homogeneous group of white liberals cannot credibly countersignal, because there are too many people who look just like them and talk just like them and don't have the lovely qualities they advertise by acting confidently. In the general population, loose race talk is more likely to accompany racism than non-racism, and non-racism is more likely to accompany political correctness than loose race talk. The outside observer can't separate the speaker from the general population and has to judge them against those priors, not local, fine-tuned priors.
So to sum up, countersignaling is hazardous when your audience can't separate you from the general population via personal acquaintance or context. But often, you aren't as different from the general population as you think (even if your immediate audience, like you, thinks you are). Or, the general population is in poorer shape than you suspect (increasing the prior that you're in a low-quality tier for the quality you might countersignal). Therefore, you should prudentially exercise caution when deciding when to be uncautious about your signals.
1I am visiting the Singularity Institute.
When incomplete strangers - i.e. not literal complete strangers off the street, but people who've been introduced to me by a mutual friend without having any idea who I am - ask about my cryonics necklace, I often lead with, "It's my contract of immortality with the Cult of the Severed Head".
This seems to work fine.
In fact, I strongly suspect it works better than most other cryonics explainers, because I don't sound the tiniest bit nervous. It helps to understand that most people have no independent grasp on reality. I may post about this at some point.
In any case, this is successful countersignalling performed on very loose acquaintances.
I've found such tactics work even with people who are more or less complete strangers--say, people I've met on pub crawls while I was traveling Europe. Early in a conversation, I'll say things like "I've never had a real job, and I never would have lost my virginity in high school if the slutty girl hadn't joined the math team," and people have told me it's the funniest thing they've ever heard.
It would be a mistake to conclude, on this basis, that countersignaling is a magic pill to make yourself superhigh status. However, Alicorn seems to underestimate its value.
I would love to hear people brainstorm hypotheses about how such countersignaling could work. If countersignaling were as limited as implied by Alicorn and the paper David J Balan points to below, it would be a hell of a lot easier to understand. Some suggestions:
(1) The sort of countersignaling Eliezer and I talk about is tricky, like humor in general. The explanation of what you're doing has to be embedded in the act. Therefore, anyone who does it well must not be a complete idiot, and perhaps feels secure enough to have experimented with countersigaling a fair amount. (2) The most effective signaling with com... (read more)
I think your and Eliezer's statements contain much more signaling then counter-signaling and is why they work with strangers.
I assume the usual conversation goes on from there, somehow? By what measure does it "work fine?" E.G. What happens next?
I'm not sure this is a very good example. The reason that saying "I'm dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" works is that people who are really joining a doomsday cult wouldn't say that. Acknowledging that you are aware of the phenomenon of doomsday cults is an effective way of signalling that you are not in fact falling for the recruitment tactics of such a cult and does not require the person you are talking to to kno... (read more)
Personal example: I like to insult my friends (facetiously, of course), and they're aware of that. But when I'm with people who know my proclivities less well (or not at all), my instinctive reaction is to make the insults more severe, so it's more clear than usual that I'm kidding (i.e., lowering the politeness bar so the audience's prior is more likely to fall in the medium-to-high category). It almost goes without saying that this has backfired more than once.
So is one implication that people who interact with non-representative populations systematically reduce their effectiveness in dealing with outsiders via inappropriate counter-signaling? Seems plausible.
My example is the possibility that advertising has become less effective with time because the advertising specialists have to signal their cleverness to other advertisers (who have seen a lot of advertising and who are very sensitive to it) to get the job. They show this cleverness by making advertisements which are too subtle for the consumer audience to 'get'.
I don't necessarily see any reason we shouldn't start the day off with some pleasant chanting...
Well, okay, chanting, but let's leave the robes in the closet - so unflattering! And it's just such a pain to remember to get peroxide on the rabbit blood stains in time for them to come out clean.
I could have sworn you were going to make a reference to Ezra Dahlquist and friends, who are mentioned in a nearly identical ritual in Space Cadet. I miss books where one could go to Venus in a nuclear-thermal rocket and have a conversation with the swamp-dwelling natives.
Problem #21 with literary allusions: hash bucket collisions.
Stranger in a Strange Land is fiction. Obviously it's possible to write about the idea of a religious cult that is a great vehicle for rationality, but it's equally possible to write about faster-than-light travel. Do you know of any real-life examples?
My experience suggests that even religious organizations that purport to venerate rationality (Objectivists, the Roman Catholic Church, possibly the Pythagoreans) are less effective at promoting rationality than other kinds of groups. Objectivists ended up being downright insane.
Since St. Augustine. One of the core tenets of their faith is that the existence of God can be proven through the use of reason alone, and throughout the centuries they have spent almost as much time as the rabbis arguing about dogma, although with a distinctly different attitude about the need to come to a conclusion.
Indeed. Were it not for the Catholic Church's assertion that the existence of God can be known through reason, I might have stopped short of pursuing my doubts all the way to atheism...
Irony is a means of simultaneously signalling and countersignalling.
By ironically obeying correct social forms, it is possible to receive status from conventional culture and counter-culture. The conventional culture does not want to admit that it is the butt of irony, and the counterculture likes people who score points off of the conventional culture. Is anyone aware of research into irony as a signalling strategy?
Saying X="I'm dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" in a blatantly ironic way gives you the benefits of implying 'to unschooled eyes, it would appear that X - don't be unschooled' along with 'I'm sophisticated enough to be aware that certain aspects my decision look as if X' and 'I'm confident enough about my decision to make light of this', before finally concluding 'but of course, it's not actually true that X'.
Irony signals a lot.
Why Can't Anyone Tell I'm Wearing This Business Suit Ironically?
I was once at a very indie film festival which had some very indie bands playing before the films started, and the hot-pink-haired lead singer of one of the bands had a Hannah Montana shirt. To this crowd, that sent an unmistakable message: "Ha ha, why am I wearing this shirt, clearly I'm one of you because there's no way I could be serious about liking Hannah Montana."
On the other hand, it would signal coolness or at least normalcy to certain parts of the "conventional culture" (specifically, young teenage girls who actually do like HM, and older people who think that's a normal sort of thing for them young folks to like, and who don't distinguish much between wildly different subgroups of young folks).
That's the general formula, though usually for it to work specifically as SirBacon described, the relevant subset of "conventional culture" needs to be larger. But when it's not — if you're going around in your Hannah Montana shirt and there are a lot of people who neither take it as non-ironically positive nor are aware of the intended irony, and consequently look down on you — it still works, though in a different way: you get to gain even more status... (read more)
I suddenly want "Escape your closing parenthesis." on a t-shirt.
If that's the caption, here's the image.
Hahahaha. Best transhumanist slogan ever.
When I read this in my google reader I just had to break an electronically enhanced lesswrong.com moratorium to sign on and vote it up. This part I particularly appreciated:
This explains a lot about how different your approach should be when meeting women in different places. What you do has to be different in a bar, at a professional conference, or at a party where you are best friends with the host. What is perfectly normal in a bar is overkill at the party.
You can get away with saying much more controversial things among people who know you well. Eg. You can much more easily talk about possible average genetic differences in IQ with people who know you're not a racist than you can among people who don't know you from squat.
Thanks, that was a interesting read.
There's a bit of a gray area between counter-signaling and feigned self-mockery - for example to counter some not so well though-out ideas "Could you please explain in simple terms, I'm not smart enough for your Powerpoint slides". In that case, the main thing we'd like to signal is probably that the presenter is unclear (or worse); but obviously it depends on some minimum of status as an intelligent person to make this work.
I've seen this kind of veiled attack on a presenter happen a few times; in some cases, only the audience seems to pick up the subtleties.
There is a very nice and closely related paper with the excellent title "Too Cool for School? Signaling and Countersignaling," summarized here:
Somebody I know once conjectured that this story might not work if there were a continuum of types instead of discrete types. I don't know if anyone has ever worked that out.
I wonder to what extent we should apply this idea to our dialogue here.
More than we are inclined to think. This is one of those things where it easy to overestimate how like-minded the group is and so miscallibrate the communication. I've had counter-signals backfire here before, which is one of the reasons I appreciate Alicorn's reminder so much. I would add that you aldo need to consider the potential motivation of the audience and that when online context is fossilized forever.
It's not like we need a sarcasm tag.
Go meta and look at that comment again.
Maybe we need a sincerity tag.
Strangers and counter-signaling:
You cannot counter signal with people who have no previous impression about the attribute you are counter-signaling.
Whether the person is a stranger or friend is irrelevant. A counter-signal is likely to work whenever the recipient already has a positive view of the attribute you are counter-signaling.
Note you can send a positive and negative (counter) signal at the same time. If the net is positive counter-signal will work.
Good friends don't signal:
I think that friends that know you well do not pay much attention to sig... (read more)
You can't countersignal humility.
Pshh. I can.
A priest goes before the altar and prostrates himself before it and says, "I am nothing before you God." A rich man comes in after him, prostrates himself before the altar and says, "I am nothing before you God." A beggar comes off the street and prostrates himself before the altar and says, "I am nothing before you God."
The rich man then whispers to the priest, "Look who thinks HE'S nothing."
What about being in a group-say a conference, party etc where people have heard of you-assume you've a quality or other that's desirable or attractive- so they never met you but know of you and your exploits/wisdom/whatever?
IMO in that situation even though you don't actually know the people they know of you, and signaling might not be just unproductive but Counter-productive, you'll simply seem arrogant and too full of yourself. for eg. you meet someone, you tell a story about your exploits or share useful knowledge-signal-, they get impressed, you repea... (read more)
I don't think I usually mean it as counter-signalling (from the inside, it feels like I'm talking in a way that I find more fun/interesting/funny), but I have little bits of self-depreciation as part of my normal speech. I have to consciously turn it off for job interviews, because in that context it always gets taken literally. This is probably why. (Possibly also some influence from the other person consciously trying to evaluate me during the conversation.)
See also: (Meta) Poe's Law.
Interesting post. The--I shall dub it--Schrödinger's Racist example is very good, and it brings me cold-warm fuzzies of indignant recognition from my experiences of 'Not really racist'/'Just banter'/etc., even if that's not for what you were aiming.
Edit after a brief a-Googling: Hah! Someone beat me to 'Schrödinger's racist'.
See also Glenn Loury's Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of “Political Correctness” and Related Phenomena.
Seems to me the racism example doesn't work because it never was countersignaling to begin with.
The idea of countersignaling is that you are so secure in your possession of some high status trait/situation you perspicuosly fail to promote/advertise THAT trait/situation. The racism case isn't countersignaling because your casual behavior doesn't suggest confidence in your actual non-racism (that's largely irrelevant to the consequences of such talk to you) but rather confidence in other people's belief that you are non-racist. However, other people believ... (read more)
This explains why so much “signalling” stuff sounded so implausible to me. Nearly all of the people I interact with (not counting NPC-like situations such as those with clerks) already have so much information about me that what I can do in a short period of time (unless it's something very unusual) will be unlikely to substantially affect their opinion about me; this situation is probably much rarer among people who live in larger cities and/or are not as easily recognizable.
One of my strongest signaling attempts was the language I used in The Wannabe Rational. Was this signaling or countersignaling? I am not up to snuff on the signaling terminology, so this is an attempt at clarification and not an objection to your points.
Another clarification example: If a community used what you know as a status symbol, would it be signaling or countersignaling to ask for an answer you didn't have?
Is there a reason that this post is entitled Things You Can't Countersignal? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that there are Places You Can't... (read more)
Not countersignaling as such, but and interesting related question. If you do a favor for somebody without them knowing, should you tell? On one hand you might feel it's bragging (so NOT telling might be viewed (or confused with) as countersignaling). On the other, there is a an element of social reciprocity that is a communal benefit, and the information contributes to it. Cialdini (in 'Yes!') and the Talmud (do not remember where) specifically say yes, even though Talmud generally places high value on humility.
One model for tourism consumer behaviour is the 'bragging rights model'. It probably applies to cars as well. Among those of us with better things to do with our time and model, the bragging probably comes from the ethical and intelligence consumerism. Despite tangential work experience that probably would get me cred in that line of work, I wouldn't even apply for jobs at a car dealership. Waste of production, not just consumption!
I find excruciating honesty a worthy ideal, but not everyone is prepared for it. So, plainly describing everything you intend to signal and counter-signal might come off as eccentric, but worth doing if you can pull it off. It requires the right type of audience.
"So to sum up, countersignaling is hazardous when your audience can't separate you from the general population via personal acquaintance or context."
This, like the whole post, is based on the assumption that you want people to know about you. If you want to remain Unknown, then you just don't signal anything, and people can think whatever they like.
First off, the concept of "counter-signaling" is not a useful abstraction. There is just signaling, period. Using your definition of counter-signaling, you only counter-signal when the content of what you're saying contradicts the rest of the signal via body language, tone of voice, context, non-verbal communication, etc. The content of what you verbally say is not a major player in signaling.
When you take what you say at face value when "counter-signaling", you're lowering the status of the thing you're referring to. In your case, you... (read more)