Thoughts on status signals

The LW com­mu­nity knows all too well about the sta­tus-seek­ing ten­den­cies ev­ery­one has, not ex­clud­ing them­selves. How­ever, the dis­cus­sion on sta­tus sig­nal­ing needs to be de­vel­oped fur­ther. Here are some ques­tions I don’t think have been ad­dressed: what can we con­clude about peo­ple who are blatantly sig­nal­ing higher sta­tus? Should we or can we stop peo­ple from sig­nal­ing?

First, let me clar­ify what I be­lieve to be the na­ture of sta­tus sig­nals. A sta­tus sig­nal only ex­ists in cer­tain con­texts. A sig­nal in one com­mu­nity may not be af­fec­tive in an­other sim­ply be­cause the other com­mu­nity has a differ­ent value sys­tem. Driv­ing up to a Sin­gu­lar­ity Sum­mit with 24 inch spin­ning rims on your car will sig­nal low sta­tus, if any­thing.

An in­ter­est­ing prop­erty of sta­tus sig­nals is that they ex­pire. If ev­ery­body knows that ev­ery­body knows that a cer­tain be­hav­ior has been used as a sta­tus sig­nal in the past, it no longer works. One ex­am­ple of a sta­tus sig­nal that is near­ing ex­pira­tion is buy­ing an un­ac­quainted woman a drink at the bar (note the con­text I am refer­ring to; buy­ing some­one a drink may sig­nal high sta­tus in other con­texts). There is noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with this act; it’s just that women know that most men are just try­ing to sig­nal for high sta­tus—there­fore, the sig­nal won’t work. Some men know that women know about this sig­nal and, thus, stop us­ing the sig­nal.

On LW, one sig­nal on the verge of ex­piring is be­ing a con­trar­ian about ev­ery­thing or always find­ing faults with an­other’s ar­gu­ments. This, how­ever, could lead to a new anti-sig­nal sig­nal: agree­ing too much.

Sig­nals that have com­pletely ex­pired are in­finitely more nu­mer­ous. For ex­am­ple, show­ing your re­sume or col­lege tran­script in most con­texts is un­ac­cept­able. Even when ap­ply­ing for a job, the re­sume is no longer suffi­cient—sev­eral in­ter­views are now nec­es­sary. Of course, in the in­ter­views, the in­ter­viewer is just look­ing for un­ex­pired sig­nals i.e. sig­nals they don’t know are sig­nals.

This dis­cus­sion on the ex­pira­tion of sig­nals raises this ques­tion: why do sig­nals ex­pire?

When A re­al­izes that B is sig­nal­ing, B’s in­cen­tive scheme is ex­posed. A knows that B is try­ing to make him­self ap­pear higher sta­tus in the eyes of A or any­one else he is sig­nal­ing to. Fur­ther­more, A knows that B thinks A doesn’t know the sig­nal is, in fact, a sig­nal. Other­wise, B wouldn’t have done the sig­nal. A now knows that B is try­ing to im­press (a low sta­tus be­hav­ior by the way) and there­fore has the in­cen­tive to lie. Since A knows that B doesn’t know that A knows he is sig­nal­ing, A figures B thinks he can get away with ly­ing or ex­ag­ger­at­ing the truth. Since A knows that B has the in­cen­tive to lie, A will find the sig­nal not cred­ible. In short, a sig­nal ex­pires once it’s com­mon knowl­edge that the sig­nal is a sig­nal.

In an ideal world, we would all just co­op­er­ate and tell the truth about our­selves and we wouldn’t have to play this silly sig­nal game. Un­for­tu­nately, if peo­ple start co­op­er­at­ing, the in­cen­tive to defect just gets higher. As you see, this is a clas­sic Pri­soner’s Dilemma game.

How can we get peo­ple to tell the truth?

Easy, ev­ery­one needs to learn about sta­tus-seek­ing be­hav­ior in or­der to weed out un­re­li­able sig­nals. The sig­nal game may never end, but with ev­ery­one’s knowl­edge of sta­tus-seek­ing be­hav­iors, the sig­nals that aren’t yet weeded out will cor­re­spond more ac­cu­rately to one’s true sta­tus.