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.

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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.

See here I throw so many “counter-” in that the series stabilizes, and you can't even reliably tell from a picture of me whether or not I was on a fancy dress party. (I forget to stop counter-counter-counter-signalling when I'm in an unfamiliar place, leading to weird stuff such as people mistaking me for a local.)
Now I'm starting to think there are side-of-the-pond differences in this kind of things. IME Americans (especially westerners) do seem to take stuff more seriously than Europeans, though the Americans I've talked to are probably not an unbiased sample.

I assume the usual conversation goes on from there, somehow? By what measure does it "work fine?" E.G. What happens next?

Even assuming that your friend had never talked to them about you before (which is not guaranteed -- I can't count the times someone I've just met has told me “you're the one who did $thing? my roommate/sister/fellow $town-er/whoever $name [usually a friend or a former classmate of mine] told me about you” -- and I'm not even Eliezer Yudkowsky), they at least know that you're friends with [the person who introduced you], which provides a lower bound on your level of sanity. Once in a while, shortly after I've been introduced to someone by a mutual friend, I tell them stuff which would make someone I've just cold-approached freak the hell out (I guess -- I have to extrapolate, as I wouldn't even dream of telling someone I've just cold-approached that [redacted], for obvious reasons), and as far as I can tell they react positively.

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" 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.

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)

People who are not joining a doomsday cult wouldn't say that either.
People also tend to blab and joke about things that put them in stressful situations. Joining a doomsday cult, or a cult which is thought by others to be a doomsday cult is something which can put a lot of stress on you. So it's not implausible that someone would say such a thing and mostly mean it.
Yeah. My point is, though, is that it's about relative probability of such remark between those joining a doomsday cult and those not joining a doomsday cult (who are unlikely to at all pull that utterance out of the space of possible utterances, let alone say it)
Back in college, I occasionally used something like "...also, I joined this cult" as a joke on the odd religious inclinations of the people I was hanging out with at the time. (Several of them belonged to various esoteric strains of reconstructionist paganism.) Probably needless to say, there was no cult, the joke was universally understood as a joke, and I remained atheist.
Well, how should a rational person update their probability of you joining a cult if you said you did?
Tone matters a lot here. "I joined a cult!" [light, smiling] is all but certainly a joke. "I joined a cult" [anger] probably means "fuck off and stop prying into my private life". "I joined a cult?!" [horrified realization] likely points to a group with some unpleasant practices, if not necessarily an actual cult, and an update in the positive direction wouldn't be out of line. Online, of course, there is no tone, and so we have to go by context. "I joined a cult" in the title of a Reddit AMA means something very different than if you're talking about, say, GameFAQs.
Well, context matters a lot - if someone has dropped out of school, moved to a foreign country, there's a lot of nonjoke content here. I mean, should we consider the "dropping out of school" to be a joke too?
Even there I wouldn't update positively on the words, though my prior would be much higher thanks to the circumstances. People don't use negative-valence words unironically to describe groups they're part of and aren't disgruntled with, and "cult" is very negative-valence; "I joined a cult!" [light, smiling], therefore, strongly signals irony. The message is "I don't consider this a cult, and I expect you to get the joke". Contra Alicorn, I think it would have worked the same way for just about anyone -- the speaker would have to be cartoonishly clueless for it to be taken at face value.
Well, if someone literally said "I am joining a very cult-like group that I don't consider to be a cult", wouldn't it be much more likely that they are in fact joining a cult than the baseline probability of such? (Which is very low - very small fraction of people are at any moment literally in the process of joining a cult). It's that this ironic statement acknowledges that the group is very much like a cult or is described as a cult and what they're doing is very much like what a person joining a cult does, but for some reason they don't believe it to be a cult.
In those words? Yes. You may note that those are different words than Alicorn's, or any of mine. ETA: Wow, got seriously ninjaed there. I'll expand. It's not the "I don't consider this a cult" part of the message that'd make me update away from the surface meaning so much as the "...and I expect you to get the joke" part. That trades on information, even if you don't know it, that the speaker expects you to know. The speaker believes not only that they're not joining a cult but that it's obvious they're not, or at most clear after a moment's thought; otherwise it wouldn't be funny.
Well, if the speaker got a job at Google or McDonalds, it would be far more obvious that they're not joining a doomsday cult... yet it seems to me that they wouldn't be joking it's a doomsday cult out of the blue then. It's when it is a probable doomsday cult that you try to argue it isn't by hoping that others laugh along with you.
Not in my experience. If people are scared that they're doing something potentially life-ruining like joining a cult -- and my first college roommate did drop out to join an ashram, so I know whereof I speak -- they don't draw attention to it by joking about it. They argue, or they deflect, or they clam up. I'd expect the number of people who joined doomsday cults and made jokes like Alicorn's to be approximately zero.
... I would be very surprised if this was true. My experience mirrors what Jiro said - people tend to joke about things that scare them. Of course, some would clam up (keep in mind that a clammed up individual may have joked about it before and the joke was not well received, or may be better able to evaluate the lack of humour in such jokes)
Okay, they joke about it. Just not the kind of joke that draws attention to the thing they're worried about; it'd be too close to home, like making a dead baby joke at a funeral. Jokes minimizing or exaggerating the situation -- a type of deflection -- are more likely; Kool-Aid jokes wouldn't be out of the question, for example. Why the ellipsis?
Well, presumably one who's joining a doomsday cult is most worried about the doomsday (and would be relieved if it was just a bullshit doomsday cult). So wouldn't that be a case of jokes minimizing the situation as it exists in the speaker's mind? The reason that NORAD joke of yours is funny to either of us, is that we both believe it can actually cause an extreme catastrophe, which is uncomfortable for us. Why wouldn't a similar joke referencing a false doomsday not be funny to one who believes in said false belief as strongly as we believe in nuclear weapons? To indicate that a part was omitted.
Well, if someone ironically says that they are "dropping out of school to join a doomsday cult" (and they are actually dropping out of school to join something), they got to be joining something that has something to do with a doomsday, rather than, say, another school, or a normal job, or the like.
There's a lot of doomsdays out there. My first assumption, if I was talking to someone outside core rationalist demographics, would probably be climate change advocacy or something along those lines -- though I'd probably find it funnier if they were joining NORAD.
Well, you start with a set containing google, mcdonalds, and all other organizations one could be joining, inclusive of all doomsday cults, and then you end up with a much smaller set of organizations, inclusive of all doomsday cults. Which ought to boost the probability of them joining an actual doomsday cult, even if said probability would arguably remain below 0.5 or 0.9 or what ever threshold of credence.
Yes, I understand the statistics you're trying to point to. I just don't think it's as simple as narrowing down the reference class. I expect material differences in behavior between the cases "joining a doomsday cult or something that could reasonably be mistaken for one" and "joining something that kinda looks enough like a doomsday cult that jokes about it are funny, but which isn't", and those differences mean that this can't be solved by a single application of Bayes' Rule. Maybe your probability estimate ends up higher by epsilon or so. That depends on all sorts of fuzzy readings of context and estimations of the speaker's character, far too fuzzy for me to do actual math to it. But I feel fairly confident in saying that it shouldn't adjust that estimate enough to justify taking any sort of action, which is what actually matters here.
Well, a doomsday cult is not only a doomsday cult but also kinda looks enough like a doomsday cult, too. Of people joining something that kinda looks enough like a doomsday cult, some are joining an actual doomsday cult. Those people, do they, in your model, know that they're joining a doomsday cult, so they can avoid joking about it?
They might out of jest.
Well, the way I would put it, someone who's getting a job at McDonalds is exceedingly unlikely to say out of the blue that they're joining a doomsday cult, while someone who's joining a doomsday cult is pretty likely to get told that they're joining a doomsday cult, at one point or the other (or to anticipate such a remark), and thus doesn't have to be uttering something irrelevant out of the blue.

Your countersignals are more opaque than you think they are.

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.

I've found this to be true as well. Calling someone a fool in casual conversation is bizarrely more insulting than calling them a damn fool, as everyone will understand that the latter is a joke but the former might be taken seriously.

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'.

Agnostic complains about the trend toward "ironic" advertisements here. They also annoy me.
As far as the Advertising example goes, I think I disagree. Advertising has become less effective because there is so much more of it. There are advertisements in more places than ever and and consumers are so used to seeing it that it's hard to break through that clutter and grab their attention, especially in terms of the interruptive-based advertising model that is used on TV and in banner advertising online. What might actually illustrate this point is the reason why advertising can be really horrible. It's not that ad specialist have to signal their cleverness in a way that sabotages the end product by making it too clever, but more that people in the industry are constantly having to justify it's quality to clients and colleagues--so they end up justifying things and approving things that are actually really bad.
I would be surprised if that wasn't something that was wired in from many generations of dealing with other tribes. I've noticed a change in my own behavior when around new groups of people. It's weird when it happens, because I'm so used to countersignaling and disliking those that regular signal it bothers me when I catch myself doing it.

might start chanting or something any moment

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.

8Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
She is here. Who is absent?
4Eliezer Yudkowsky14y

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.

We should set up a program that blasts 'One Winged Angel' through the speakers of every online computer in the house, every morning.
Hey, a religious cult can be a great vehicle for rationality! (Stranger in Strange Land)

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.

I said what I did mostly for the entertainment value, so essentially I am not going to defend it. I will say that some religions are more rational than others, open to science and "believe" that their faith is logical. Rational (Maimonidean) Judaism has a lot of these ideas, as did Islam as some points. Christianity had their share of rational people, but if you start with nonsense like trinity you cannot get too far IMO.
Since when do RC Catholics venerate rationality? ETA: I have tried and failed to find, through Google, any mention of a special connection between RC belief and rationality. Possibly they accept rationality, but that they venerate it is a much stronger claim. Could someone please give a ref and not just downvote?

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...

You might read G.K. Chesterton's story, "The Blue Cross." ( Or for just one relevant passage from the story, see This sort of attitude is fairly common in the Catholic Church and seems a lot like veneration, although that could depend on your definition.
As far as I could make out from just that chapter, that story is about a time traveler observing a robber masquerading as priest and giving an ironic quotation. I'd like some more solid and official evidence tying Catholic dogma to rationality.
As far as I can make out, you didn't understand the story. Anyway this would be more official: Of course it's too long to read, and anyway as I said it's a question of interpretation.
At Pantheacon, I encountered a fellow who had started a church modeled after those in SiSL

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.

3Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Have you ever done this? Example?

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)

escape your closing parenthesis.

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.

Fixed link:
2SirBacon14y Link is to David Brooks, an elite columnist for an elite paper, chiding "elites". He gets paid for this stuff, and is presumably read in earnest by millions of Americans.
There are some interesting, or at least amusing, higher-order phenomena that follow from that. 1. The possibility of claiming to like something ironically, while actually liking it in earnest, in order to avoid rejection (or at least mockery) from some group or subculture that one identifies with. I don't hang out with a lot of people who are really countercultural or hipstery, but I'd probably still do that if I found myself honestly liking, for instance, a Miley Cyrus song. (Just an example. So far, I see little risk of that happening. :P) 2. The hypothetical class of people I've named "metahipsters". Ordinary hipsters pride themselves on having liked something before it became (perceived as) mainstream or after it had faded from the mainstream, or because it remains (perceived as) non-mainstream, etc. The metahipster prides him/herself on having liked things unpopular, pre-/post-popular, or unacceptable among hipsters. (I'm trying to bring top hats back. If I succeed, there'll probably be hipsters bragging about how they liked top hats before they got all mainstream, while I'll get to brag about how I liked top hats before they got all popular with hipsters. I have no idea what this signals. Feel free to psychoanalyze me.) 3. Related to both of the previous two items: I actually have some friends who follow a typical hipster aesthetic, but claim to be doing that only ironically. I still find it a bit hard to wrap my mind around that.

When I read this in my google reader I just had to break an electronically enhanced moratorium to sign on and vote it up. This part I particularly appreciated:

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.

I appreciate the compliment and the upvote, but what kind of electronically enhanced moratorium keeps your RSS subscription?
Both the leechblock plugin and adding '' to '/etc/hosts' or 'C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts' are effective. The key is that does not make any reliance on the domain visible to my computer. For obvious reasons it is the full engagement and commenting that can become a distraction from more directly beneficial goals at times, for similar reasons that tv-tropes so addictive. I take breaks for up to three months at a time but reading the actual posts here still qualifies as time well spent and occasionally justifies logging on. Now, to return my procastinating energies to hacking out an improved ruby based bash replacement. rush just doesn't have the tab-completion I need to give myself the illusion of smooth productivity.
If you were to include a history of your commands across sessions, and maybe an option to dump all the commands from the current session into a .rb file, I would love you forever.
There are almost certainly more productive things you could procrastinate with.
I'm not sure there are. The ruby shell seems to be right at the threshold at which I label things 'procrastination' rather than 'worthy endeavor'. By the way, the tab completion I have happening is nice. ;)
I'm sure :)
[puts fingers in ears and starts singing “la la la la la”]¹ You're sure you don't want to rot-13 that? (EDIT: Actually, I already know ways to break out of a electronically enforced moratorium if I really need to, but still.) ---------------------------------------- 1. i.e. I blurred my sight and hit the down arrow until the vote/parent/reply/permalink buttons were at the top of the window.
One of the problems with this kind of denial is that typically our imaginations---already evidently primed to assume the worst---are capable of coming up with something far worse than reality itself. This seems to be an example of that. Yes. See above and below. There isn't anything that needs to be rot13'd here. Mind you if there was something that needed redaction then I would question your decision to apply thread necromancy to it. A comment from 2010 is a whole lot more obscure than a comment with a child comment singing lalas. The grandparent provides instructions on how to impose a moratorium of the kind discussed in its parent. It doesn't describe how to break out of electronically enforced moratoriums. In fact the instructions for creating the limitation cannot even be (mis)used to reverse engineer a way out of a correctly applied 'leechblock' moratorium. (That would require actual research and effort.) And somehow still believed you would be able to respond intelligently to the comment that you didn't read. Oops.
Oops indeed. (Grandparent retracted.)

Two thoughts:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

Also, think of your romantic relationships. You can get away with a lot less "I'm a high value male" signalling once she knows you really are who you present yourself as.

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.

That attack signals that you don't have enough status to be direct but have to use a indirect way. Additionally you are wasting the time of your audience with playing status games instead of asking a specific question that demonstrates the problem with the idea of the presenter.
Being snarky to a presenter is mean, given the stress they're likely under. On the other hand, giving a bad PowerPoint presentation is mean to the whole audience... One thing I tend to do whenever I have to present something is make all my slides black-text-on-white-background with no decorations. I intend it as something of a countersignal, especially if the norm is to use a fancy company/school/organization-wide template.
I do that because I'm terrible at layout and color schemes, so I KISS.
One trivial thing that bugs me when people bring up the "KISS principle" is that they invariably say it like: "So just apply the KISS principle... you know... Keep It Simple, Stupid." Seriously, who hasn't heard of that by now? I rolled my eyes a bit when you posted a link with it, but have to take it back now - I didn't know the original phrase was "keep it simple and stupid." So, in this case, explaining the acronym was actually useful!
"Keep it short and simple" is a pretty common reading.
I agree, the presenter deserves the benefit of the doubt. There are limits to that of course... I make my presentations with LaTeX/Beamer, which signals something as well I guess...
Depends on who your audience is...

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.

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.

We might, actually.

Go meta and look at that comment again.

...that was entirely too subtle for my straightforward brain. I think I get it now.
The funny thing is that this comment and all three above it could either be read straight or as sarcastic / indirect. I'm having slight difficulty determining which ones should be read as which.

Maybe we need a sincerity tag.

Third base!
I think the first two of those at least can be read in any combination of sarcastic/sincere*, which IMO is the best way to read them. I need to take a screenshot of those two and share them on some internet site somewhere.
I read JamesAndrix's as sarcastic and RobinZ's as straight.
[not sarcasm] I often do. [/not sarcasm]

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.

You can barely signal humility, though.

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."

As a corollary of this, the beggar could countersignal humility (contrary to your claim that it can't be done) by prostrating himself before the altar but not saying anything out loud.
You signal humility by refraining from signalling arrogance when other people in the same situation would likely do so. (What Pope Francis seems to want to appear to be doing, essentially.)
Can you signal humility?

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.)

Until a few years ago, my System 1 understood countersignalling way better than my System 2 did, so I did things that in familiar environments worked great but in unfamiliar environments degraded ungracefully.

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'.

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)

But other people thinking you're smart can potentially give you more influence than you'd get simply by being smart. This is most obvious in politicians, who need to convince others that they're smart / trustworthy / etc. in order to get elected, but also applies more generally.

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)

I think "The Wannabe Rational" signaled humility (rather effectively). When what you know already is a status symbol, acknowledging genuine ignorance would say nothing good about you at all, although if you have immense local credibility and can disguise the question as a test of someone else's knowledge, asking questions could be a signal (if it looks like you're wielding authority to pass judgment on others' knowledge) or a countersignal (if it looks like you're using your question to poke holes in someone else's position). When wanting to know things is the status symbol, asking any questions that don't indicate you've done next to no homework will tend to signal medium to high status depending on how difficult they are. Perhaps the title would have been better as "Audiences To Whom You Can't Countersignal", but that just has no punch to it.
Guessing in advance of Alicorn's reply (edit: ninja'd!): that reads to me as countersignaling unless there is a norm in favor of asking for information. Asking for an answer you didn't have here (for example) would not be read as a status signal unless the question were particularly wrongheaded. Edit: An example I have read of but not seen firsthand is the classroom in Brazil where Feynman taught - in which none of his students were willing to show ignorance by asking questions in class.

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.

I usually tell them, but I try to use a tone that suggests that I don't think it's a big deal.

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.

How do you do that?

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)