everything is a signal

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 19, 2012

What makes for a signal? In the absence of any optimization on the signal possessor’s part, it is anything correlated with a particular trait of interest. Anything at all. In this case there are only two ways for something to not be a signal: 1) it is correlated only with something uninteresting; 2) it is not correlated with anything of interest.

But perhaps such inertness on the part of the signal possessor does not justify calling the signal a ‘signal’. Much more interesting is when whoever possesses the trait of interest is trying to get the screener (signal recipient, they who are curious about the trait) to believe something about the trait. Whether the signaler is honest or dishonest does not matter for this post.

It is of course unnecessary for any action on the signal possessor’s part in order for anything correlated with a trait of interest to be a signal. But in the context of humans being social, when we say something is a signal, we mean to say that a certain “common understanding” for the motive of a behavior is wrong, or at least incomplete. For example, generosity may be a signal for affluence, no matter if it is actually sincere. This is why the post is titled the way it is.

So everything is a signal in this sense: Anything correlated with any trait of interest will be seized upon by the signaler to optimize for whatever they want the screener to believe.

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  1. Grognor said, on June 24, 2012 at 2:25 am

    This post is brief, which is of course a virtue, but I think as a consequence it insufficiently emphasizes the degree to which signals can be directed inwardly. “Proving oneself” is a common enough justification for various acts. Proving oneself to whom? To oneself, of course.

    • sarkology said, on June 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm

      Hmm yes. But I think we mostly prove to ourselves as a means to reliably prove to others.

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