Email of the Day: Signaling Can Explain Many Human Behaviors

Blog reader Eugenio L. at Harvard Law School emailed me a thoughtful response to my post Do Wealthy People Consume High Culture To Signal Their Wealth? His email included below with permission.

1) Have you read much evolutionary psychology?  (This isn’t a combative or rhetorical question; I’m just asking).  I happen to think evolutionary psychology is a powerful explanatory theory, and signalling is a common topic in the field.  Evolutionary psychologists analyze a lot of human behavior, not just consumption of high culture, in terms of signalling effects.  Our social behavior is not simply something that we as free agents dreamed up chose, rather it resulted from millions of years of evolutionary pressure (consider the universality of the facial expressions associated with particular emotions).  Since so much of human life is social, and since so much of one’s ability to procure resources within a society depends on one’s standing within that society, it should come as no surprise that a lot of the things we do can be understood as signals.

(2)  Supposing that consumption of high culture is largely the result of signalling, what of it?  (Again, this isn’t meant to be combative).  As mentioned above, it is not likely that consumption of high culture is unique in this regard.  Is the issue that this makes high culture somehow fake and low culture real?  That to claim that one actually enjoys high culture is disingenuous?  This isn’t likely, for most forms of cultural consumption are signals and are particular to social networks.  Consumption of Western high culture wouldn’t carry much social cache in, say, Tahiti.  Nor does it in the hallways of a suburban American high school.  Signalling is relative to social group, and the consumption of goth music by certain groups is no less an instance of signalling than the consumption of opera (only the goth kids are trying to A. signal something else and B. signal it to a different group).

(3)  Simply because the consumption of high culture is a signalling mechanism doesn’t mean that it isn’t deeply pleasurable to those that practice it. Indeed, evolutionary psychology would predict that effective signalling measures should be very pleasurable: creatures that take pleasure in signalling are more likely to signal better, and thus more likely to pass on genes.  The exact form of signalling that we take pleasure is most likely determined by childhood exposure and peer influence (that makes since generally activities or possessions work as a signal only within particular social contexts). So, in short, it should be no surprise that high culture is chiefly a signal; high culture is not by any means unique in this regard; and, finally, the fact that high culture is a signal does’t impugn honesty of individuals who claim to enjoy high culture.  Signalling is one of the most powerful ideas in both economics and evolutionary psychology, and you’re right to try understanding human behavior in terms of signalling.  Just realize that it’s going to be extremely widespread.

3 comments on “Email of the Day: Signaling Can Explain Many Human Behaviors
  • Now for the obvious questions:

    -How can proponents and forumulators of this theory claim that it is valid when they themselves are positing a universal tendency of behavior? In other words, how can they be certain that espousing this theory isn’t itself an act of signaling?

  • That exact point has already been raised by a lot of evolutionary psychologists who will be the first to admit that their scientific achievements are instances of signalling. Now, they also think that these statements are true, just as they think that statements of, say, physics or mathematics are true. Our brains’ ability to perform the tasks necessary for logic and science are as much a product of evolution as an opposable thumb.

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