Signaling: Why People Have Conversations

by liam_hinzman2 min read20th May 202021 comments


SignalingWorld Modeling

How would you convince somebody that you’re an expert in quantum mechanics?

If you’re not an expert in this field, you shouldn’t be able to effectively apply any method you can imagine. If you could, then it wouldn’t be a useful signal.

If I told you about Schrodinger’s cat to you right now, you probably wouldn’t think I’m a quantum physicist. If this wasn’t the case anybody could Google and trick you into thinking they more than they do.

Signals are actions that demonstrate evolutionarily desirable traits or possessions, such as physical fitness, material wealth, or knowledge of quantum mechanics - which is seen as a signal of intelligence, a trait that is desirable to potential allies and mates.

For a signal to be seen as honest, it has to be costly and public.

Effective signals are easy to do if they are honest and reflect traits or material you possess, and costly if not. If I actually was an expert in quantum mechanics, then showing you research papers that I’ve written would be a good signal.

Signals have to be public to benefit the one signaling. Donating $10,000 to fight breast cancer won’t convince anybody of your empathetic and pro-social nature unless people know about it.

Signaling is a primary motive behind many of our behaviours such as:

  • Conversation: talking with others lets us signal our utility as a potential ally.
  • Charity: donating shows that you have an excess of wealth, and that you’re somebody who will help their allies.
  • Consumption: sharing that you went on an expensive vacation signals to others that you have an abundance of material wealth.

Conversations are Opportunities to Signal

(This view of signaling and conversation is mostly a summary of a chapter from The Elephant in the Brain by Hanson and Simler. For a more in-depth treatment of signaling and how it effects human behaviour I'd highly recommend reading it)

Without signaling, the usual explanation for why people have conversations is that it serves as a way to trade information. I tell you about the nearby berry bush, you tell me about the dangerous lion to the West. We cooperate through conversation, and we’re better off for it.

There are a few problems with this line of reasoning.

People like talking more than listening. If we participated in conversations primarily to gain information, then you’d expect people to want to listen more than they speak. People almost always show the opposite behaviour.

Most people don’t keep track of any sort of conversational debt. If one of your friends teaches you a lot about quantum mechanics for hours, you might feel grateful, but I doubt that you’d experience an overwhelming need to repay any informational “debt”.

Relevance is important in conversations. If somebody told you that their farm was attacked by foxes, and you immediately responded by telling them about your recipe for tacos, you’d get a strange stare. Instead, maintaining relevance and conversational flow is always important. This doesn’t seem to follow from the idea that people have conversations to trade information.

But through the lens of signaling, all these pieces of etiquette and conversational quirks make sense.

People have conversations to signal their utility as a potential ally and mate. Rather than conversation being a way to cooperatively share information, this suggests that conversation is largely a selfish behaviour. People talk to signal to others their material wealth, knowledge, and fitness.

This explains why people like talking more than listening. Every time you speak you’re getting a chance to show the other people how great you are. If somebody mentions that they’re building a new house, you’ll be excited to show any knowledge you have on construction or design.

People don’t track conversational debts. Instead, people often compete to talk as much they can. You don’t care if you’re helping somebody build a house and getting nothing in return. Them knowing that you were the one who helped them, demonstrating your value as a potential ally, is a large reward.

Maintaining conversational flow is important. It would be too easy to throw random pieces of information out there otherwise. If you happen to know a lot about whatever just came up in conversation, that’s a signal to others that you probably know about a whole lot of other things as well.

So why did I write this post?

I’d like to think it was primarily because of my curiosity. Signaling has a lot of explanatory power when analyzing why people do certain things. But it also serves as an (attempted) signal of my intelligence.

Hey, look at me! I’m the type of person who spends time learning and writing about human behaviour. I hope you think of me as a good potential ally.