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.
In addition to fostering coordination, common knowledge prevents people from hiding behind the veil of plausible deniability. To get away with selfish behaviour, we often pretend to ignore its consequences. If you can plausibly say that you didn’t know about the poor working conditions of people in sweatshops, people will judge you less harshly for buying cheap clothes. But if many people virtue signal by campaigning for better workers’ rights, the issue rises to common awareness – and, when everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence.
Viewing morality as a coordination game suggests that public opinion can undergo rapid shifts, as society coordinates on new moral norms. And this is indeed what we observe: public opinion on a variety of subjects – such as racism and gay rights – has shifted dramatically in a progressive direction over the past few decades (sometimes within a few weeks).
In sum, virtue signalling can be a powerful force for social change, by creating common knowledge around a moral issue that people would otherwise ignore (out of complacency or selfishness). Importantly, this works even when there is no guarantee the people who are sending the signals are particularly virtuous or committed to the cause.
But the signals that are the most effective at convincing others of our virtue are not systematically the ones that have the most impact.
Mark and Bob both made a $1,000 donation to a charity. Before making his donation, Mark read extensively about different charities, seeking the one with the best return on investment – the charity that runs programmes with the most impact on people’s lives per dollar invested. In the process of his search, Mark would often read about an organisation that does great things, but then drop it from consideration because there was no evidence that it would use his money in the best possible way. He finally settled on a charity that provides a highly cost-effective treatment against parasitic worms that plague many people in Africa.
Bob was watching TV one evening when he saw an ad for a charity that gives teddy bears to convalescent children in hospitals. Bob was overwhelmed by emotion at the plight of the children, and immediately made a transfer to the charity.
Mark’s donation will make a much greater impact on people’s lives. But he comes off as cold and calculating, and we can’t repress a nagging doubt about the kind of person he is. Would he still have donated if he had found that none of the organisations he read about was effective enough? Bob by contrast leaves no doubt about his good nature: he spontaneously gave his money without the slightest care about crude materialistic concerns such as economic efficiency.
Human altruism is very ineffective – as revealed by what charities people donate to
The tale of Mark and Bob illustrates one of the bleak insights of signalling theory: the concrete impact of an altruistic act (how much it actually helps other people) is often dissociated from the signal it sends about what kind of person we are. This means that, to convince people that you are good, the most persuasive signal you can send is often not what will actually produce the most good.
From this perspective, it is unsurprising that human altruism is very ineffective – as revealed by what charities people donate to, and psychology experiments. In a recent study, researchers gave a small monetary amount to participants, and told them that they could donate any percentage of their endowment to a charity of their choice. They also told participants that any amount they gave would be multiplied – the strength of the multiplier varied from participant to participant. Participants told that their donation would be multiplied by 10 gave almost exactly the same small proportion of their endowment as participants who were told it would not be multiplied. This is not because people are not good enough at mathematics: in a control experiment where, instead of donating, participants could save some of their money for later, they saved significantly more when they were told that the money they saved would be multiplied by a high number.
The researchers also found a possible explanation for why participants did not care about the efficiency of their donation: donating effectively would not have sent a better signal about how good they are. Participants who gave money to a charity when they knew it would be multiplied by 10 were not seen (when judged by another group of participants) as better people than those who gave money in the absence of a multiplier.
Anna and Sarah are two environmental activists who campaign for renewable energy. Anna wants to lobby the government to replace fossil fuels with wind turbines and solar panels. Sarah wants to go further: all sources of energy (including, for example, nuclear power) should be replaced by renewables. Who is most dedicated to the environment?
Just as in the case of Mark and Bob, the signals sent by Anna and Sarah can come apart from the actual impact of their behaviour. People might view Anna suspiciously – is she secretly in the pocket of big nuclear? – while Sarah’s dedication to the cause leaves no doubt. But Sarah’s opposition to nuclear power might actually leave the environment worse off, if the government needs to temporarily replace the nuclear power plants it shut down with fossil fuel, increasing CO2 emissions.
Why might people be motivated to send extreme signals of their commitment to a cause? The answer lies in the fact that, when we send virtue signals, many of the things we seek – such as friends and social status – are rival goods. The people you want to be friends with can have only so many friends, so you want to convince them that they should pick you. The social groups you belong to can have only so many leaders and, in order to gain influence, it helps to show that you are more committed to the group’s ideology than is the average member.
Everyone is opposed to killing humans: saying you think people should not kill each other does not set you apart
When individuals send signals to try to convince others that they are better than average, the result is often what signalling theorists call a ‘runaway’: an arms race toward more and more extreme signals. If peahens want to mate with the peacocks whose tails are more extravagant than the average peacock, natural selection favours peacocks with increasingly more extravagant tails over successive generations. If everyone has a high-school diploma, students need to start getting bachelor’s degrees in order to become distinctive in the eyes of employers. Students in the next generation will, of course, pursue a master’s to distinguish themselves from the mass of mere college graduates.
In the moral domain, runaway signalling happens when people try to elevate their moral status by doing and believing things that not everyone else does. For example, everyone is opposed to killing humans: saying that you think people should not kill each other does not set you apart from others. But not everyone is opposed to eating animals, so being vegetarian or vegan can effectively increase your moral standing.
Runaway signalling can have positive effects (as in the vegetarianism example), expanding our domain of moral concern to issues that would otherwise be conveniently ignored. But it can often lead people to hold beliefs that are increasingly disconnected from reality. Imagine that you are a follower of a religion that promotes peace, but everyone else in your country also believes that peace is a good thing, regardless of their religious affiliation. Professing your belief in the value of peace would not be the most effective way of signalling your religious virtue, because even outsiders to the faith would say the same thing. Instead, it is most effective to express your belief in moral norms that are not already self-evident to everyone: for instance, the norm that people should not use birth control because it is against the will of God. Exotic beliefs are great signals of loyalty to your group, because it is likely that outsiders will not share them. Unfortunately, the moralisation of such ideals can be very damaging, as when religious bans on contraception facilitate the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
When we see someone virtue signalling, we often have strong reactions – sometimes admiration, sometimes annoyance or contempt. But these intuitions are the product of psychological mechanisms that are designed to help us evaluate if that person could be a good friend or a good ally, not to help us evaluate whether the person’s action will have a positive impact on the world. The emerging science of signalling shows that these things can often come apart. Keeping this insight in mind is essential as we navigate an increasingly noisy world.