If Robin Hanson is to be believed, then most everything we do relates back to signaling in one form or another. Whether it's the clothes I choose to wear in public, the way I speak to others, or even the rationalist essays I read to supposedly better myself, if how I proceed carries a cost, then signaling must be a part of it.
Yesterday, I carried a backpack from the car into my house. To my knowledge, no one was looking in my direction, nor was even present to look. I used one shoulder strap, not two.
I find this interesting because when I was a kid, using only a single shoulder strap on your backpack was considered the "cool" thing to do. I don't think anyone really thought of it in those terms, of course; you weren't exactly called out for being uncool if you used both straps. But in southern Alabama where I grew up as a teeenager, it was just known that you only used one shoulder strap when wearing a backpack.
I haven't used a backpack in years. When I do see backpacks these days, they're generally carried by children in school. Here, in the Maryland suburbs of DC, all the kids know you're supposed to use both straps when wearing a backpack. It's not an explicit knowledge, mind you. When I query kids between the ages of 10 and 18 about this sort of thing, they claim to have never really thought about it until I asked them directly. Yet it's nevertheless a shared knowledge between all that using both straps is the way you're supposed to do it.
So yesterday, I have the task of taking a backpack from the car to the house. Without thinking, and without any intended reason, I used a single strap while carrying it. As I was walking, I had the thought to myself: This backpack is a little heavy; it would have been better for me to use both straps. But I was halfway to the door by then and didn't bother changing how I carried it.
I think that I used only a single strap out of habit, and not for any signaling reason. Except it can't really be habitual, since I haven't carried a backpack in years. Could it be a remembrance, then, of an old established signaling guide that no longer functions? After all, current people who use backpacks think of using two straps as the cool thing to do, even if they aren't able to explicitly say this without being guided first. Am I signaling my tribe unintentionally -- a tribe of mid-eighties era southern Alabama kids that have long since grown up and none of which could possibly have seen me signal?
I don't like the signaling model because it makes me feel like shit. When I needed high quality headphones that could block out ambient sound while I took the metro, I bought Bose QC35 noise-canceling bluetooth headphones. My intention was to buy something which sounded good for podcasts (my main use of the headphones), which didn't have tangling cords, and which would allow me to understand the spoken word even when going through the noisiest portions of the DC metro. Bose was a relatively expensive brand, but the headphones hit all the notes I cared about, so I purchased them.
Before purchasing, I thought about two signaling issues. First, among non-audiophiles, Bose is seen as an expensive high-status brand, especially when the headphones are wireless. Second, among people who actually use high-quality headphones, Bose is seen an overly-expensive rip-off brand with only medium-quality sound, especially when the headphones are wireless. I remember thinking: Do I care that most people will fall into one of these two groups and judge me by my wearing of this product? My conclusion at the time was that it didn't matter, thinking about signaling was a waste of time, and I just wanted the best product for the features I desired, which ended up being the QC35s. I bought them and was very happy with them for years, even though I think it increased the rate at which people asked me for money during my commute. The use of them was great, but the fact that I had to think about signaling was not.
I have a partner, Katherine, who has an unconventionally large body size. When we first met, I connected with her online and found myself fascinated by her personality, charm, wit, and humor; we've since grown much closer together. My honest inner thoughts are that signaling has nothing whatsoever to do with how our friendship has grown, but, just as with the example of using a single shoulder strap on that backpack, it doesn't have to be consciously intentional in order for it to be true.
Size acceptance isn't exactly popular in society today, so obviously I can't be signaling for status among the general public by associating myself with Katherine. And I don't really associate with a specific tribe that specifically extols size diversity, so I can't be signaling to them. But what if I'm countersignaling, showing that I'm beyond base prejudice by associating with someone who is fat? But this leaves out counter-countersignaling, where you need not bother showing that you're beyond that base prejudice by needlessly associating with someone of size.
I'm sure you can see now why thinking about signaling makes me feel like shit. Katherine is a person, to think of her in this way just feels wrong. And, to be fair, I'm not thinking of her in this way at all -- to the extent that there may be signaling going on with her, it is all unconscious, undesired, and unnoticed. On the inside, it feels like I just found someone I clicked with (or is it "cliqued"?) and we grew closer over time. But taking the Hansonian view makes me have to think about signaling (or countersignaling) or the only real alternative that explains my costly actions: habit.
What I want is to not even care about this sort of thing. But that's a kind of signaling all in itself, so it helps not at all to think of it that way. I'm left, then, with habit -- but that sounds almost as bad as signaling. I may not be a deontologist, but it still makes me feel like shit to think about how I may be using people as a means, rather than as an end. I'm reminded of how easily I continue to fall into the tropes of "helping" women, despite my best efforts. In the poly community, it's not even standard for the male to pay for meals at dates anymore, yet anytime I've dated, I end up doing just that. In my mind, it isn't sexist; it's just a factor of my earning more money than the usual person I'd date. But the end result is the same: I pay for meals. Combine this with the habit (or is signal?) from my southern upbringing of holding open doors, using overly polite language, etc., and I can't help but to feel like I'm just not acting correctly in these types of situations. I feel like I need to manually insert a bias against "helping" in order to correct for my maybe-prejudiced norms (read: habits).
The main takeaway that I have from all this is that if I treat how I act as a series of habits, then I feel like I can correct for it through inserting manual bias. But if it's all really signaling, then I don't really understand how I could even start to correct for it. This is because habits deal with the actions you take, whereas signaling deals with the desires behind the actions you take. So I'm going to treat how I act as the results of a series of habits, rather than as signals -- regardless of whether the Hansonian view is accurate. (Which means, perhaps ironically, that I'm not valuing love strongly enough through the reality of signaling being a prime motivator. As Hanson tries to relate: "I love people, even if I don’t think they are as good as they like to let on." Whether you view this as me being a failure or of me countersignaling, I don't really care.)
The above paragraphs meander a bit too much for this to really be a publishable essay, but in the interest of trying to avoid making decisions due to signaling, I'm going to publish anyway.
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