As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their high moral standing.
Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere ‘virtue signalling’. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changing your profile picture or saying you don’t like a politician’s stance on immigration. Bartholomew complains that ‘saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness’.
Virtue signalling can be easy – but why does that make it seem bad?
To answer this question, and understand virtue signalling in general, we need to take a couple of steps backs. In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents. My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signalling. It might be more illuminating to look at what science says on the subject. Why do we have the strong emotions we have about virtue signalling, and is it actually good or bad?
Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signalling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signalling theory can be counterintuitive, and have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signalling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons you think.
Why do we scold virtue signallers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they are at making the world better?
A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions. Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless? Why do employers care that you put yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get an Ivy League degree in sociology with no obvious relevance to the job?
In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point. Their argument (which won Spence a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001) is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully looking at how it works. Communication is difficult because individuals have incentives to lie. Employers are looking for certain qualities (intelligence, conscientiousness, ambition) in their employees. They could ask the people they interview if they are intelligent and conscientious, but why wouldn’t the job candidates simply lie?
Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness and ambition will find college more difficult, and either drop out or spend much more time completing their studies. People who anticipate that getting a degree would be too costly for them will opt out.
So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable signal, it is in your interest to get a degree, and in the employer’s interest to hire you on its basis.
People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status
A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the ornament. Therefore, only the peacocks in good enough condition can afford to grow an elaborate tail. As such, natural selection favours peahens who prefer peacocks with a long tail, because these peahens mate with healthy males, and get healthy offspring as a result.
Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-term relationship, he would have little incentive to invest such effort. His gifts function not because roses are particularly useful items, but because they are a costly signal of his commitment.
Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But what prevents someone from pretending to be a good person, reaping all the social benefits, and not following through?
Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral hypocrisy. We carefully scrutinise potential romantic partners, friends or team members for signs that they’re not only in it for the money. And since – per the logic of costly signalling – the costs that people are willing to pay are a reliable signal of their commitment, we pay extra attention to these costs when we evaluate other people. Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the costs they are willing to pay to benefit their group – but not on the basis of the amount of benefits they actually provide.
This is probably why we find virtue signallers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefits? When they are not paying any meaningful costs, virtue signallers activate the alarm bells that millions of years of evolution put in our heads to protect us from fair-weather friends and other moral hypocrites.
So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake, but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we are not very good (or especially concerned) at evaluating the large-scale social effects of things. As such, it is easy for a polemist to throw discredit on someone who virtue-signals by pointing out that there is no guarantee that the person actually shares your moral values. But is this the right yardstick by which to evaluate these signals?
In defence of virtue signallers, research on signalling theory shows that even cheap talk can be useful.
Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the sidewalk to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete stranger, there is no particular reason she would try to deceive you. In such circumstances, people will send signals (eg, stop before making a sudden exaggerated movement toward one side) to successfully coordinate. Mathematical models show that these costless signals can be crucial in helping people solve otherwise thorny coordination problems.
Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid that others will think you are weird, that the people benefiting from the system will punish you, and that you stand no chance to make a difference anyway.
The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion. But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voice to denounce what they see as a moral problem, the more the initially silent people realise they are not alone and speak up in turn.
When everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence
Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows (and so on). Psychology experiments have demonstrated that common knowledge is a powerful determinant of social behaviour: people are much more likely to coordinate on a joint action when everyone knows that everyone knows that working together will generate good outcomes.
Link to the rest at Aeon