I take it as obvious that signaling is an important function in many human behaviors.  That is, the details of many of our behaviors make sense as a package designed to persuade others to think well of us.  While we may not be conscious of this design, it seems important nonetheless.  In fact, in many areas we seem to be designed to not be conscious of this influence on our behavior.

But if signaling is not equally important to all behaviors, we can sensibly ask the question: for which behaviors does signaling least influence our detailed behavior patterns?  That is, for what behaviors need we be the least concerned that our detailed behaviors are designed to achieve signaling functions?  For what actions can we most reasonably believe that we do them for the non-signaling reasons we usually give?

You might suggest sleep, but others are often jealous of how much sleep we get, or impressed by how little sleep we can get by on.  You might suggest watching TV, but people often go out of their way to mention what TV shows they watch.  The best candidate I can think of so far is masturbation, though some folks seem to brag about it as a sign of their inexhaustible libido. 

So I thought to ask the many thoughtful commentors at Less Wrong: what are good candidates for our least signaling activities?

Added: My interest in this question is to look for signs of when we can more trust our conscious reasoning about what to do when how.  The more signaling matters, the less I can trust such reasoning, as it usually does not acknowledge the signaling influences.  If there is a distinctive mental mode we enter when reasoning about how exactly to defecate, nose-pick, sleep, masturbate, and so on, this is plausibly a more honest mental mode It would be useful to know what our most honest mental modes look like.

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Interesting (I hope) tangent:

I'm autistic, which means among other things that my native modes of signaling are 'nonstandard'. I don't easily understand what most other people are trying to signal, and most other people don't easily understand what I'm signaling. (This appears to be due to both different modes of signaling and different goals.) Unlike some auties, I do emit signals in the 'normal' mode - they're just usually not very accurate signals of what I actually think or value.

I don't like being misunderstood, so I made a conscientious effort for a long time to cut my 'normal-style' signaling behaviors down to near-zero, if they were happening incidentally to something else - wearing the most neutral clothing I could find, for example, and not discussing my own preferences about anything without a clear reason to do so. Most of the specific tricks I picked up, I integrated as habits, so that the whole process didn't take a disruptive amount of mental effort, with the side effect that it's hard for me to pick out specific examples, but I did eventually get quite good at not signaling much at all. (If anyone's interested in specific examples, I'm willing to take the time to pu... (read more)

You've just helped me towards a realization. Many people in the US take race as a signal! This has the effect of mis-contextualizing the signals you are actually giving off, or cause them to see others that are not there. Also, there seem to be many people who are only processing the signals, and are not dealing with the abstract content of speech.
Of course. Race, gender, disability, height, weight, age, beauty, and on and on and on. Most if not all prejudice can be described as signals, and most of the work of activists dealing with those issues is to get society to react to those signals in a way that's neutral rather than positive or negative. (Not all activists realize that, which is how you get some of the really crazy-looking ones, like feminists who freak out every time a male has more power in a given situation than a female does.) And yes, I've seen more instances than I can count of people processing the signals and ignoring the message, or, more annoyingly, expecting me to do just that, and then blaming it on me when I don't understand them, or go do what they said instead of what they meant. I'd even go so far as to say that most of the time when someone's logic really doesn't make sense, they're not using the logic for logic, they're using it as a carrier for the signals, and hoping (or, assuming - I'm probably giving them too much credit if I imply that it's being done consciously) that you'll play along. In fact, there are times when that seems to be the most useful communication strategy, and it's one I've been working on learning for the last few months.
I've noticed situations like this - I keep in mind Dennett's intentional stance. Just like there are some computer programs that I can beat at games by attributing beliefs and desires to them, there are some people with whom I can interact more successfully if I assume they don't have (propositional) beliefs and desires, and are instead just reacting to social cues. It's scary when I realize I place most people into the latter category.
Interesting reading. And yes, it's pretty disturbing how most people can be best understood by taking a design stance rather than an intentional stance - seeing the average Joe as being designed to respond to social, internal, or situational cues rather than intentionally following a path may be impolite, but it works more often than not.
Wow. You've gelled a lot of things for me with this one statement! I've noticed this phenomenon with a lot of people! Reminds me of a time when I met this one guitarist. We tried to jam once, but he kept wanting to delve into chord progressions, and I wanted to gell the rhythm. As a result, he kept on hesitating on the rhythm, and I kept on the same chord progression, waiting for him to pick up on my swing. Both of us were frustrated by the end.
Autistics, since they signal differently, might be in a good position to comment on which ordinary behaviors signal how much.
Not exactly. I'm in a fairly unique position to be able to figure that out, but it'd take a significant amount of effort, and in most cases I haven't bothered; if there's data other than signaling in the behavior, I tend to note the data and ignore the signal. If there's not much data other than the signal, or the static to data ratio is too bad, I just write the whole thing off as NT weirdness. Mostly, we tend to figure out the minimum about normal signaling to get by, and ignore the rest as an inefficient use of time. I was able to figure out which things I was doing were signaling things to normal folks without figuring why or how by noting when the reactions I got were responding to something other than the message I'd been intending to send. Edit: Brain fart. :P

Voted up, but as Adaptation-Executers (rather than Fitness-Maximizers) we can't trust whether an activity is about signalling just by whether or not it has any signalling value in our present environment.

What would a hunter-gatherer do that has no signalling value for their inclusive genetic fitness? What activities we do that come from adaptations of those hunter-gatherer activities?


Maybe to find something we need to dissect "we" into smaller parts. On average masturbation is not signaling; for some small subset of people it is. On average we don't advertise how much time we spend on entertainment; for some subset of the population it's a matter of intense group politics.

Thanks to the internet, I can think of all kinds of bizarre subgroups whose behavior wouldn't have been associated with signaling in the past, until they found others like themselves, at which point ordinary status instincts took over.

Fair enough.

You're unlikely to find things this way, because you're thinking of named activities that you noticed happening. Both of those limitations select for things that are socially relevant - the 'named things' one especially, because the things that there are names for are things that are socially interesting, that people would want to talk about, and that's going to be almost entirely social-signaling things.

It seems like you'd do better to think about actions that don't have specific, short names, and that people don't usually pay attention to, either in themselves or in others. For example, where in a (communal) closet one hangs one's coat, or what direction one faces when in the shower.

I can imagine people bring this up in conversation in order to signal camaraderie (showing equal status) or caring about what the person says. In order to find activities that don't have any signaling power, you have to consider the value system of the group you're in. It's wrong to ask this question to people who may live in cultures or have friends with different value systems. I don't think there exists a "universal non-signaling activity." I can imagine any activity be signal-worthy given a value system that values it. A better question to ask: "What are your least signaling activities?"
Good point. Most of the ways I can think of for that require a very solid sense of self-awareness (would you keep doing X if every social group you were currently involved with, or had recently been involved with, mildly disapproved of it, but you still found it useful?) and thus probably aren't very useful to most people. Things you'd be surprised to find that others had noticed at all, while a small subset of non-signaling things, seems like one of the more robust ways of finding accurate ones, which is what I was trying to get at in my original comment. And yes, that'll vary widely from one social group to another. (Implication: Picking your social groups wisely is important.)

"Least signaling" is a bit too vague to work with. Under your definition, the only criteria seems to be the degree to which we can talk about it. Anything at all that is socially acceptable to talk about can be construed as a signaling activity, so this definition is not very useful compared to say, basing it off of how many people would do it being observed vs. not observed, or which country they would choose to live in in the data you cited.

If it's pleasant, I can brag about it to show how much leisure time I have / how my life is better than yours. If it's unpleasant but useful, I can use it to show how good of a work ethic I have that I got it done. If it's expensive, it shows I'm richer than you. If it's cheap, it shows I'm thriftier than you. If it's beautiful, it shows I have better taste than you. If it's ugly, it shows that I'm enlightened enough to know that it's not really ugly, or I'm thrifty, or I'm above aesthetics. If it's a complete waste of time, well, it lends itself to a good story and lets me showcase my sense of humor. If it's really, really unpleasant and pointless (like a serious disease/injury), I can gain your sympathy, improve my image (who speak... (read more)

Obviously there is a danger of the Perfectly General Explanation. But sometimes signaling has to be seen in context to figure out what is really being signalled. You're quite right that opposite actions may be interpreted as signalling the same thing, but that also assumes a unity of recipients. Often in the street, seeing someone from behind, I've been wondering whether it's a dolt with no taste or a avantgarde with extreme tastes. You often can't tell till you see their faces or perhaps glasses. Similarly, the signalling in the rural areas I come from mean other stuff to the locals than to my big city peers (i.e. rube, not alpha male). People are heroes in their own stories. You can count on them to pretty consistently try and look good to their perceived peers.
This post isn't about trying to find some sort of definitive Popperian test of the hypothesis that our behavior is often influenced by the fact that it influences how others think of us. That seems so obvious as to not be very interesting to test. I agree that the fact that something can signal doesn't imply that it is chosen to signal. The question here is about the degree of influence on the details of our behavior, which seems like a clear sensible question even if it doesn't suggest an easy formula for determining in each situation.
That clears it up substantially, but it does not sound like what you asked originally. It's clear that hours of sleep could be used to signal status. It's not at clear (and it seems unlikely) that hours of sleep are influenced by a desire to signal status. "The degree of influence on the details of our behaviour" is a fine criteria; it just doesn't seem like what you asked for in the original post.

If the ancient (proto-human) mental construction of 'self' was a remodeled and turned inside-out version of the 'other people' mental construction, the distinction between signaling to nobody and signaling to yourself may not be on as sturdy grounds as it seems.

The idea seems to make sense: Evolution doesn't jump in huge strides, so the progress from not-having-a-self to having-a-self must have been a cumulative one. The only place for similar parts to be worked on an advanced is within social behavior with your group, so that at least seems reasonable at... (read more)

Signalling can be read into any activity communicated to anyone else. That leaves only things done on one's own that one does not customarily talk about.



Why are you interested in locating the least signalling activities?

5Paul Crowley15y
I would guess because a hypothesis that explains everything explains nothing.

A hypothesis that explains everything that could happen explains nothing. A hypothesis that only explains everything that does happen explains everything.

For every star in the universe, the theory of gravity explains why it is round. If the theory of gravity were also capable of explaining cubical and pear-shaped stars, only then would we need to worry.

ETA: if the hypothesis explains everything that does happen, that might be evidence that it also explains things that don't happen, so in that sense you're right.

Describing the structure of what could happen is also an important task, it just isn't the same as explaining what does happen. The first describes the world as you value it, the second describes the effect of your actions on that world.
I'll add to the post explaining my interest more.
Viewing social interaction as primarily driven by signaling isn't a hypothesis that "explains everything", as it has implicit in it most of the inferences one would reasonably draw from evolutionary psychology. However, it is the case that given Robin's perspective, the statement "Activity X is done for signaling purposes, possibly subconsciously so" is at best inane and at worst tautological.
I guess you are saying my perspective is innane. What does it signal to write a comment saying " this poster's perspective is inane", without offering a reason for believing this?
I think he was just saying that you identify so much behavior as signaling, that pointing out a given behavior as signaling is redundant. Specifying what the behavior might signal (among other things) would be neither inane nor tautological; it's just that in the context of the overwhelming signaling you hold to be all over the place, saying "Activity X is done for signaling purposes, perhaps subconsciously so" is like saying "that cubic foot of apparently empty space is occupied by air, and some amount of water vapor the exact amount of which varies with overall humidity". Sure, it's true, but there is no obvious reason to say it about that cubic foot of apparently empty space and not all apparently empty space near Earth as a whole.
Not in the slightest, and I apologize for the miscommunication. Alicorn is precisely correct in clarifying my intent (and probably does so better than I would have). I actually think many of your discussions on the effects of various kinds of signaling are quite interesting, in fact.
"Meditation" -- I think that even there, it sort of starts out as an endeavor to signal to self "non-status-seekingness". This is why I think that the "zen patriarchs" in the koan stories whoop the newbie wards and humble them initially to break down their status-seeking natures, so that they may move on to the next level of meditation where they are not competing and signaling to themselves (and other apprentices) that they are best at "not vainly scrounging to be the best".
If we're going to start describing private behaviour as "signalling to oneself", then the signalling concept has been generalised to the point of vacuity.
If a behavior is described as "signaling to oneself" that means that the behavior in question will not in itself further the goal it is aimed at, but is meant to strengthen the part of your identity which makes you value that goal.

Not signalling is

plausibly a more honest mental mode

Why should it be more "honest" not to signal? We are a social species. I conceive it possible to make a close relationship closer by signalling to ones partner what is actually the case.

Things like exercise, studying, which increase fitness and status may be motivated by the desire to increase fitness and status, with signalling only a by-product of this.

In moments of threat where the amygdala takes over, and time seems to slow down, a person responds to the threat, probably without signalling. But it is meaningless to say that I am "honest" when in a fight or flight situation, and at no other time.

If most of the groups and relationships you're in are with people who actually value honesty, yep, that'll work very well. Unfortunately, that's not most people's highest priority. There's also the issue that when you're dealing with people that you can't entirely trust, dishonest signaling is intrinsic to staying safe. Autistics have a lot of trouble with that concept as a general rule - I found it counter-intuitive to have to do, and very hard to learn the skill - which is why we have such a reputation for being 'too trusting' and 'gullible'. I still have to consciously notice that I'm in an unsafe situation and specifically engage that skill, and I suspect that if you don't have to do that consciously, you're going to badly underestimate how often you do it.

I take it that the point of this thread is to find activities which exemplify a low-signalling "mental mode".

Most of the commentators have pointed to activities, as topics, which feature more or less often in our signalling conversations. My attempt to point to the manner in which we do activities, in which signals least pollute our thinking, was voted into oblivion.

Again, however, I would like to suggest that activities characterized by ecstasy and intense engagement are good examples of what RH called "a more honest mental mode".

When... (read more)

I think by "honest" you more mean "sincere" - lacking conscious internal conflict. Sincere beliefs can be very influenced by signaling. By "honest" I meant when our beliefs about why we do things better match why we actually do them.
Compare the skilled butcher, who, with no wasted movements, cuts his meat just where the joints are, and the flashy butcher, whose flourishes make for less skilful and efficient cutting but send a more impressive signal. I agree that the flashy butcher could became engaged in his cutting and lose consciousness of the crowd and his impression on it without decreasing his signalling behaviour. If he did so, he might become more sincere, but his signalling behaviour would remain. For signaling is not a conscious addition to his art, which might strip away: skill at cutting and skill at signalling are woven confusedly together in it. What I had in mind, though, was engagement, not in the sense of losing consciousness in this way, but in the sense of giving oneself over the activity and its rhythms -- as devotion or submission. I assume that someone who gives himself over to an activity, like the skilled butcher, is to the extent that he does so going to bring his attention and action in line with the "joints" naturally present in that activity and set aside everything else as waste, including his signalling behaviour. Perhaps "ecstasy" and "engagement" were the wrong words for this giving over. The idea, anyway, is that surrender to what is natural or given in an activity is likely to result in a state of mind that is more aware of those divisions and less engaged in signalling. When I make love, I do not simply become too engaged to bother with conscious signalling. I am also, to the extent that I give myself over to the activity, -- to my own most animalistic urges and sensations, and to the movements of my partner, stripped of my unconscious signalling behaviour and enfolded or remade by the activity itself. In some measure, I step out of that behaviour and into the activity.

Considered as heuristics, or even adaptations, specific signaling behaviors don't necessarily distinguish the situations where the behaviors can be observed by others and those where they can't be. Behaviors that take contextual efficacy into account are more complicated, and likely won't be developed unless the cost of idle signaling is high. The choice to contextually choose to implement a behavior should be considered a part of that behavior.

Thus, privacy of behavior isn't a very good criterion: given behavior may be just a context-insensitive side effe... (read more)

You might suggest sleep, but others are often jealous of how much sleep we get, or impressed by how little sleep we can get by on.

In that case, parallel reasoning eliminates anything taboo. We signal our acceptance of community norms by avoiding taboo subjects. We might tell stories to make it less obvious that conformity is an end in itself: "intelligent people resist the temptation to swear and find more effective ways to express themselves," cf. George Carlin and his seven words.

Fight of flight responses seem like a pretty clear case. U... (read more)

We can signal conformity by avoiding the taboo, but we can signal our independence via the taboo. Yes, running in fear to protect just our own butt may be a good example of a min signal activity.

Anything habitually done alone and considered pointless, embarrassing, unwise, or revolting to discuss publicly is a candidate. Most things that go on in the bathroom count. Clipping one's toenails (if one does not wear open-toed shoes); little doodles, drawn with no one watching, to be thrown away after completion; doing laundry in a private washing machine; selecting a toaster setting when preparing breakfast alone.

It's possible that I'm underestimating the sorts of things people subconsciously expect others to pick up on, but I also doubt anyone is si... (read more)

Picking one's nose. ... why are you all looking at me like that?
Robin assumes that anything done in public (visible to others) is for signaling, so for his assumptions, I think you're right that this is the best answer. I'm really questioning that assumption though. I think anything we do that species with less complex social environments also do would qualify as likely not for signaling: eating, sex, anti-predatory activities, etc. And I think there's value in distinguishing between things we do to strut (showing off the newest cell phone) and things we do because of required social signaling (mowing the lawn). Otherwise it seems too easy to say "Everything is signalling" and not really have learned much.
Well the fact of eating is clearly done mostly for non-signaling reasons, but since eating is social the details of how we eat are greatly influenced by signaling. So our beliefs about why we pick those details are unreliable, to the extent we tend to not be aware of signaling influences on behavoir.
I agree with that. I guess what I'm not sure about is, it seems (very nearly) everything we do is social, so (very nearly) everything would have signaling. Asking what signaling activities we do seems to be asking the wrong question. Thinking of it from an evpsych point of view, I would expect that there is a mental organ of signaling (or the result of several organs) which attempts to signal at all possible opportunities. So whenever there are humans around, we seek the shortest path to the highest signal value.
0Paul Crowley15y
Of course, selecting an espresso machine setting may well be signalling, even when preparing breakfast alone.
If the machine doesn't remember the setting and the next user can't see it, this indeed may be self-signaling (self-priming? non-verbal self-affirmation?), but I'm pretty sure that Robin asked for examples of "least-signaling" activities, not "least-self-signaling" activities. (On the other hand, mentioning the breakfast espresso setting to others is signaling proper.)
I think I'd want to lump self-signaling with signaling, since self-signaling would also lead to unreliable beliefs about one's reasons for doing things.

Signaling is, generally speaking, a means of displaying social status and desirability as a mate, yes?

Ergo, anything that directly fulfills a basic physical imperative other than the reproductive drive is a likely candidate for non-signaling. Hunger, exhaustion, the fight or flight reaction, &c. Of course, all of these can be wrapped in contexts indicating social status, but the actions themselves are likely mostly neutral. e.g., people may brag about their sleep habits for status, but when they do go to bed it's probably because they're tired, not because they're thinking about how it will impress others. It's the talking about sleeping that is doing the signaling here.

If you can believe it, this claim isn't strong enough: * you wear a suit to a job interview (otherwise you might be hard to work with) * your bank spends a lot of money on impressive buildings (otherwise you wouldn't feel safe giving them your money) * the government. The last three American presidents have been drug users who supported the War On Drugs. Otherwise, people would think they were soft on crime.

As others have mentioned, there seems like there's an important distinction between doing things, talking about doing things, and doing things so we can talk about having done them. Whether or not they actually signal anything is a different issue. There are many things I think we do or do not do with no signaling intent. We sincerely might not care what our shoes say about us, and so our choice of shoes has very little signaling motivation, but we may nevertheless signal very strongly to certain people through our choice of shoes.

And many things that we ... (read more)

What about on the receiving end? Who is less conscious: The signaler, or the receiver?

I brought this topic up in the meditation/discussion group that I'm a member of, and we discussed it for a couple of hours. The log is here.


Dissect the signal: I am a non-androgynous heterosexual male, age 31, living in Canada. I carry a purse in which I keep my wallet and various useful items, in spite of the fact that men in my culture almost never do. To my conscious mind, I do so almost entirely because it's a ridonculously useful thing to do. What am I unconsciously signalling thereby, and to whom? (There is a non-null answer to this question, but it took me a few minutes today to sort it out.)

Off the top of my head: It could be a general signal that you are willing to ignore nonsensical social rules - this is a dominance/confidence signal, in most cases, that you either have the social standing to not be questioned about such a decision, or are confident that you have the correct skills to defend yourself if confronted, or both. It could be a signal that you value convenience above appearing normal, assuming that you value appearing normal at all. It could also be a signal that you value appearing unusual. Further context would be useful in determining which. It could be a signal that you belong to a particular group, most likely the group from which you got the idea to use the bag. This could be true even if those around you are unlikely to recognize the signal - it can still be a self-signaling mechanism, or a 'secret password' type signal that would increase your chance of meeting other members of the group who may live near you, or a recruitment mechanism ('conversation starter'), or some combination of those. It could be a specific signal that you reject heteronormative limitations - I refused to carry a purse for a long time out of a combination of that and generalized rebelliousness.
This was necessary but not sufficient for me to decide to use the purse. This one is the closest -- the context here is that the person who suggested I use the purse was unhappy with the way my wallet looked when I carried it in my pocket. (That should give away the answer almost completely.)

Here's another possibility: addictive behaviors. Addiction is, generally speaking, a compulsion to partake of some behavior with disregard for costs associated with the behavior. This can be extended to include a disregard for potential signals sent by the behavior, in much the same way that someone who is sufficiently hungry will desire to eat with no regard for signaling.

Given what AdeleneDawner reports about experiences with non-signaling, I wonder if part of the reason for the (sometimes apparently disproportionate) social stigma of addiction stems fro... (read more)

Yep, I would say behavior that you wouldn't want others to know about, but you have to engage in anyway. Such as overeating, or purging may be.
You think? In my experience, people are more accepting of, say, winos in the street than they would be with perceived normal people acting the same way. I'd say people excuse addicts' actions exactly because they're addicts.
Thise seems plausible to me.

The more signaling matters, the less I can trust such reasoning, as it usually does not acknowledge the signaling influences.

I like this motivation, but I think you're going down a dead end looking for non-signaling-but-reasoned-and-interesting choices. I don't think there's such a thing, as signaling is part of our motivational makeup, and factors into even things that other people cannot know.

I expect much more success attacking the second half of the sentence. Knowing that signaling is a core component of preferences, train your decision apparatus to ... (read more)

This seems very sensible to me, and I know that it's a learnable skill, because I've already taught one person to do it. I don't know how a normal-brained person would go about learning it on their own, but having an autistic friend to whom social signaling comes across as nonsense question you every time you stop making sense works for that, and also gives you good practice expressing yourself clearly at the same time. I'm almost tempted to offer my services at that, but I tend to be too busy to do it intensively these days... still, if someone thinks they can make a case that it'd be a good use of my time to work with them on that, I'm willing to listen, and can be reached here, or in Second Life with this username.

Are you looking for things that cannot be used for signaling, or things that have primary motivations other than signaling, or something else? A theory of partial motivations seems doomed, unless you've first solved the problem of scalar (as opposed to ordinal) choices.

I don't think there's ANYTHING which qualifies as action and has no signaling component. Any biological function carries a bit of data about health, and any mental function says something about motivation or ability.

Even things normally done in private (shitting, inner dialog) are signals.... (read more)

You might suggest watching TV, but people often go out of their way to mention what TV shows they watch.

There's an interesting trend in TV-related signaling here in Russia: watching TV -- or even merely having it at home -- is considered mauvais ton (sorry, don't know how to express this in English) among smarter and progressive young people.

(Which is not surprising at all given the horrendous state of the Russian TV nowadays.)

It's not just Russia.
Oh, come on... Of course it's not just Russia. TV is so last millennium. Never owned one.

If there is a distinctive mental mode we enter when reasoning about how exactly to defecate, nose-pick, sleep, masturbate, and so on, this is plausibly a more honest mental mode.

This is worth doing empirical studies on. Do people think more rationally, especially on socially-charged issues, when they're on the toilet and thoughts of their image/dignity recede to the background?

There is a strong signaling component to masturbation because masturbation and sex are substitutes. So, for example, to signal to a lover that one is extremely interested in sex with them one might masturbate less than one would normally want to.

Also, buy not masturbating you cause your brain to "automatically" put in more effort seeking out sex partners. This will likely mean you would have more success finding sex partners and so influence your signaling.

While a few very people brag about how much they masturbate social taboos prevent most from doing so. Thus, a way for many to signal a strong libido is to not masturbate.

Dont understand the "activity" part, the post implied sleeping was fine, so does breathing count?

It seems hard to get completely away from signaling. There are times when people intentionally slow their breathing to signal that the exercise they just finished wasn't as hard for them as it really was.
Well we don't often reason about whether to breathe, but when we do so reason, yes this could count.

Wouldn't it be easier if we just admitted to ourselves that much of what we do is to get attention, when we were actually doing them? Of course I want attention from people, I wouldn't talk to them otherwise.

It's also easier to avoid rationalization if you don't even attempt to provide normative justification (I believe normative justification is essentially circular reasoning).

The best candidate I can think of so far is masturbation, though some folks seem to brag about it as a sign of their inexhaustible libido.

I doubt anyone brags about how well their porn collection is organized.

On first glance, the answer that came to mind was accidental death or serious injury due to sheer incompetence, like walking off a cliff. Something that has a massive survival cost and only communicates failure seems like it couldn't be signaling. Mistakes are revealing, after all. But this kind of signaling happens all the time, mostly as a flawed means of signaling courage or simply drawing attention.

It struck me then that the question of what is "least signaling" may not be useful for determining states of mind, that every behavior can be a... (read more)

How about:

  • Laughing while alone (watching TV, reading a book, whatever)
  • Body language we utilise when talking on the phone
  • Habits(?) such as the need to walk while thinking

How about while drunk? One cares a bit less what people think, the urge to signal is weaker. But I wouldn't take this as a trustworthy mode of thought.

Also it seems that a sociopath would be more goal oriented, and only signal when it is beneficial in their own limited sense of the meaning of beneficial.

In situations where a lot is at stake I'd expect (my mental machinery anyway) to put ultimate success over signaling.

Maybe compare the personal finances of money managers to their portfolio? (Only in the case where that which they manage has similar goals, i.e. retirement funds.)

The level of conscious control over actions is largely irrelevant to the extent these actions serve signaling.

I agree with the some voices here that 'signaling' as it is used here is too broad to be meaningful. Instead of reading this post and thinking, "Ooh, almost everything I do is signaling in some way", I think, "why would I want to call almost everything I do signaling "?

The whole point of view here, as I understand, is that we don't define things a priori because we want to use observation to create our definitions. Thus, I'd expect a lot of definition-creation going on, but instead, in this post, you guys are just running with the under... (read more)

Martial Arts training might be a candidate, not the choice of doing it, but where and when to punch / kick exactly. You signal via success of your strategy, but I think you do not signal about which way you achieved your success. This might obviously be different for different styles of MA, I only have experience with Ju-Jutzu. Also, I think this example might be interesting, because the mental effort is high compared to some of the other examples.

Regarding Nose-picking, I think it is a quite signal-high activities if done in public. I'm not sure what Nose... (read more)

Picking one's nose in public signals "I have poor hygiene" (even though, according to what I've read, ingesting the results of that activity helps one's immune system... go figure) and "I don't care about societal norms" or "I don't care whether you're offended by me", depending on context. It can also signal poor social awareness, in some contexts. Doing body maintenance in public in general is considered impolite, really... something about reminding others that we're squishy critters doesn't fly very well in this society. We're supposed to signal self-control and perfection, instead. :P

There is a strong signaling component to masturbation because masturbation and sex are substitutes. So, for example, to signal to a lover that one is extremely interested in sex with them one might masturbate less than one would normally want to.

Also, buy not masturbating you cause your brain to "automatically" put in more effort seeking out sex partners. This will likely mean you would have more success finding sex partners and so influence your signaling.

While a few very people brag about how much they masturbate social taboos prevent most from doing so. Thus, the best way for most to signal a strong libido is to not masturbate.


There is a strong signaling component to masturbation because masturbation and sex are substitutes. So, for example, to signal to a lover that one is extremely interested in sex with them one might masturbate less than one would normally want to.

Also, by not masturbating you cause your brain to "automatically" put in more effort seeking out sex partners. This will likely mean you would have more success finding sex partners and so influence your signaling.

While a few very people brag about how much they masturbate, social taboos prevent most from doing so. Thus, a way for most to signal a strong libido is to not masturbate.

Why not collect statistics?

Not perfect but a start would be get people (preferably with a larger demographic than less wrong) to list their day to day activities and estimate how much other people know about those activities.

I think you'll get a large range on the amount of signaling, from the twittering youth the the staunchly off line middle aged.

That would be good data to have, but sometimes things that people rarely know about can greatly influence their opinions of us when they do know. In which case it makes sense that we would take that rare but strong influence into account in choosing our actions.

My best candidates:

  • Urination / defecation.
  • Vomiting.
  • Popping pimples.
  • Nose-picking.
  • Menstrual hygiene (female-specific.)
  • Visiting an urologist, especially to treat impotence (male-specific.) Edit: scratch that. "Not visiting an urologist to treat impotence" is definitely signaling, so this was an example of a negative-signaling activity (for the lack of a better term), and doesn't belong here.

To a lesser degree:

  • Brushing one's teeth (though "high-quality" dental hygiene habits such as daily flossing can be used to signal that "
... (read more)
Menstruation and associated phenomena get a fair amount of conversational attention from women when we are not in mixed company.
Hmmmmm, this is interesting. I haven't run into that phenomenon, and it doesn't seem to be from lack of non-mixed-company opportunity. Perhaps talking about that is a signal that everyone present is considered socially in-group? I was considered out-group or borderline in most of the relevant situations, and the few situations where the topic did come up were ones where the women initiating it had in general been especially trying to get me involved in the social group present.
That could be it. The conversations to which I refer have tended to be segues from complaining about cramps or passing references to gyn visits, neither of which I'd expect most people to bring up with socially distant others.
"Socially distant" as I understand the term doesn't seem relevant - the majority of the opportunities were with co-workers in my department, who I saw every day and knew reasonably well; I just wasn't part of the supposedly-congruent social group. We're definitely heading into territory where how I categorize things is unusual, though, here, so I could easily be misunderstanding you.
I've seen a lot of talk and advocacy of menstrual cups on all kinds of Finnish IRC channels with widely varying population counts. Anonymity isn't a strong factor as a very large fraction of people on that network use their real names.
Most internet-based forms of communication follow very different social formats than RL interactions in general - most of the same principles apply, but not all of them. I think in that case, a relevant difference is that people assume that a newcomer is a member of the social group until proven otherwise, instead of assuming that they're not a member of the group until they've made the appropriate social gestures. It also seems like most people 'feel' anonymous online, even if they're using their RL names. The lack of body language is usually assumed to be the cause of that.
Solitary walks (if truly solitary) should not be usable for signaling, at least not directly. What you might get from it with respect to signaling, is authentic experience you can later use while talking about solitary walks and thereby signaling. But I feel something else might be at work as well. I claim (although I have only anecdotical evidence) that one's brain also responds to signals from oneself, i.e. by observing that you do solitary walks, you start to believe that you are the kind of person doing solitary walks, thereby increasing your chances of successfully convincing others that you are the kind of person doing solitary walks.
Talking is not necessary -- if people know (by observing you directly or by any other means) that you take solitary walks, this is already a signal. So, to turn such a walk into a pure 100% non-signaling activity, you'll need to make sure that no one will ever know about it. And even after that, the self-signaling component you're talking about will still remain, because there's no way for you to forget the experience completely.
These are good examples; thanks!

Taking a walk alone in the hills because you enjoy the scenery.

Be careful. I was once in a class where we played two truths and a lie to get to know each other. There was another fellow who had "I have survived by myself five days in the wilderness" as one of his truths. He got big props from the girls. Do you suppose he went into the wilderness with the express purpose of impressing girls? I doubt it. He was probably more interested in the scenery.
If I understand Hanson's thread of thought, signaling doesn't need to be 'express'. Given the value of self-deception, signaling might well be better off hiding itself from consciousness. And even so, signaling gives information. If I pick my nose in public, I'm sending powerful signals to the people around me - both about my hygiene and my social adeptness - but am I expressly thinking about those consequences? I'm more likely to be thinking 'Aah, that's better!'
Right, that was my point. Even the things that don't seem to be about signaling could be about signaling.
It depends on what you mean by about---beware teleological capture. Suppose that your contemporary really, really likes scenery, and also, separately, furthermore, likes to brag about the time he spent in the wilderness to observe the scenery. In describing your contemporary's behavior, we can simply note these two separate facts, without making any potentially confusing assertions about what the behavior is really "about."

I think that any thing you like to do that might not be socially acceptable to publicly admit will fall under the category. But, with everything one can do, there is a hypothetical culture (with a certain value system) that one can signal to.


Instead of reading this post and thinking, "Ooh, almost everything I do is signaling in some way", I think, "why would I want to call almost everything I do signaling"?

I resuggest the outside-Less-Wrong definition for signaling: signaling is something that you consciously do; in particular, something you do to deliberately project a message about yourself. Importantly, it might be a sincere message or it could be insincere. Any messages that you send subconsciously, instead, is a sincere message. I prefer this definition because it jive... (read more)