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What determines the balance between intelligence signaling and virtue signaling?

by Wei_Dai1 min read9th Dec 201932 comments



Lately I've come to think of human civilization as largely built on the backs of intelligence and virtue signaling. In other words, civilization depends very much on the positive side effects of (not necessarily conscious) intelligence and virtue signaling, as channeled by various institutions. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller says, "it’s all signaling all the way down."

A question I'm trying to figure out now is, what determines the relative proportions of intelligence vs virtue signaling? (Miller argued that intelligence signaling can be considered a kind of virtue signaling, but that seems debatable to me, and in any case, for ease of discussion I'll use "virtue signaling" to mean "other kinds of virtue signaling besides intelligence signaling".) It seems that if you get too much of one type of signaling versus the other, things can go horribly wrong (the link is to Gwern's awesome review/summary of a book about the Cultural Revolution). We're seeing this more and more in Western societies, in places like journalism, academia, government, education, and even business. But what's causing this?

One theory is that Twitter with its character limit, and social media and shorter attention spans in general, have made it much easier to do virtue signaling relative to intelligence signaling. But this seems too simplistic and there has to be more to it, even if it is part of the explanation.

Another idea is that intelligence is valued more when a society feels threatened by an outside force, for which they need competent people to protect themselves from. US policy changes after Sputnik is a good example of this. This may also explain why intelligence signaling continues to dominate or at least is not dominated by virtue signaling in the rationalist and EA communities (i.e., we're really worried about the threat from Unfriendly AI).

Does anyone have other ideas, or have seen more systematic research into this question?

Once we understand the above, here are some followup questions: Is the trend towards more virtue signaling at the expense of intelligence signaling likely to reverse itself? How bad can things get, realistically, if it doesn't? Is there anything we can or should do about the problem? How can we at least protect our own communities from runaway virtue signaling? (The recent calls against appeals to consequences make more sense to me now, given this framing, but I still think they may err too much in the other direction.)

PS, it was interesting to read this in Miller's latest book Virtue Signaling:

Where does the term ‘virtue signaling’ come from? Some say it goes back to 2015, when British journalist/author James Bartholomew wrote a brilliant piece for The Spectator called ‘The awful rise of ‘virtue signaling.’’ Some say it goes back to the Rationalist blog ‘LessWrong,’ which was using the term at least as far back as 2013. Even before that, many folks in the Rationalist and Effective Altruism subcultures were aware of how signaling theory explains a lot of ideological behavior, and how signaling can undermine the rationality of political discussion.

I didn't know that "virtue signaling" was first coined (or at least used in writing) on LessWrong. Unfortunately, from a search, it doesn't seem like there was substantial discussion around this term. Signaling in general was much discussed on LessWrong and OvercomingBias, but I find myself still updating towards it being more important than I had realized.



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Another idea is that intelligence is valued more when a society feels threatened by an outside force, for which they need competent people to protect themselves from.

Building up on this, virtue is valued more when a society is threatened from the inside. If people are worried about being betrayed or undermined by those who appear to be part of their tribe they will look for virtue signals. We see this a lot in the high correlation of virtue signaling with signals of ingroup loyalty, while intelligence signaling often takes the shape of disagreeing with the group.

In general, an outside threat or goal allows people to measure themselves against it. Status is set by the number of enemy scalps one collects, for example. But without an external measuring stick people will jockey for relative status by showing loyalty and virtue

I have a boring hypothesis. It's similar to the social media hypothesis. One signals virtue or IQ based on how much other people confer status for either of those things. In the early days of the internet, when there were barriers to entry preventing people from participating online, the internet was populated with people who disproportionately valued IQ over virtue. As a result, in order to gain status in old school online communities, you need to signal IQ. However, as the barriers to entry were lowered, a more representative sample of the population began to emerge online. The general population does not confer status based on signals of IQ, if anything, it's it's the opposite. Nerds have always been low status in the general population. Thus, the parts of the internet conferred status for IQ have become insignificant compared to those that confer status for virtue. So people respond to the new incentives and signal virtue. Since our online views are connected to our real personas, this virtue signalling leaks out into reality, with observable phenomena such as people being fired from their jobs due to internet flash-mobs.

If this hypothesis is correct, then there isn't much we can do about it. Maybe we can make people aware of the dangers of conferring status for fake virtue in places with barriers to entry that are strong enough to keep out the people who would displace you for speaking about those dangers.

In short, we're all becoming part of the global village, and the village is chock full of people who "manipulate the social world, the world of popularity and offense and status, with the same ease that you manipulate the world of nature. But not to the same end. There is no goal for them, nothing to be maintained, just the endless twittering of I’m-better-than-you and how-dare-you-say-that."

A couple more ideas:

  • The decline of religion paradoxically caused virtue signaling to increase. (I wrote that earlier and forgot to mention it in the post.)
  • Access to mass (one-to-many) media used to be restricted to elites, but are now open to ordinary people, who compared to the elites perhaps tend to favor virtue signaling over intelligence signaling, and this somehow feeds back into elite culture (e.g., journalism and academia). (This can be seen as another way of stating the "social media" hypothesis mentioned in the post. I feel like I still don't have a clear model of what happened / is happening though.)

Internet search engines and the resulting lack of privacy/forgetting also incentivizes more virtue signaling than in the past, because if you're "called out" or "canceled" due to insufficient virtue signaling, that has much worse consequences than it used to. (This applies to companies too, which then enforce/incentivize more virtue signaling on their employees.) I think people who say we should just be braver are not acknowledging the real changes in our social environment.

I'm not exactly sure how the two differ...it seems like two definitions of "signalling" are getting conflated.

"Virtue-signalling" is generally understood to be a conscious effort to draw the attention of others to one's own "virtuous" behavior, which may be totally disconnected from any desire to do virtuous deeds. It is co-opting a signal for one's own purposes, and can even be more like fabricating a signal. While virtuous behavior has actual value, virtuous people don't necessarily broadcast their deeds or portray them in the way signalers do. It's translated into social status terms. In this sense, "Intelligence-signalling" would be the equivalent of "virtue-signalling" when it becomes about looking cool for one's social group, and can be totally disconnected from real intelligence---knowing the latest "cool beliefs," "owning" the out-group, coming up with jargon, etc.

Miller is talking about virtues "evolved in both sexes through mutual mate choice to advertise good genetic quality, parenting abilities, and/or partner traits," implying a natural correspondence, though of course not one totally reliable. People value kindness and quasi-moral behavior like seeming mentally stable because it tends to correlate with being a "successful" parent and member of the community. Even the ability to fake these things has value. Same with intelligence. Signalling in this sense is closer to demonstrating the virtue than a conscious choice to get attention, as actually improving the space program would be, even if the motivation for doing so was to demonstrate superiority to the Soviets--the goal was to actually be superior to them, not just look good. The opposite of virtue-signalling is actual virtue, not another type of signalling.

So, demonstrating capability, which often means intelligence, seems like it should be classified differently. It will become more popular when there are needs to be met that offer the opportunity to take real action. So, yes, times of war or external threat will have people looking for someone who can actually take on the enemy. If there isn't much to do, people who can be satisfied by "signalling" whatever quality will get in-group approval will be forced to turn to internal social status concerns. The ability to signal and get feedback is closely tied to things like mass or social media, or certain social arrangements, so I would expect it to be way up under modern conditions. But for most of human history, you lived in a community where people knew you well, and you couldn't appeal to huge swaths of humanity very easily, so the audience dynamic would be different. The most common kinds of signalling for recognition from others, which are similar to things like etiquette and social standards, would be more formalized.

Modern life has also tended to work against individuals seizing control in response to crises, as we have extensive institutions and norms in place, and tend to standardize how people express their capabilities. But in any type of real emergency or situation where there are any stakes, people will value someone who seems to know what they are doing. It can be hard to assess these situations accurately in the modern world, though, since people are far away from it and the media/government will hype or minimize the stakes as needed and try to direct who gets credit.