What Your Social Signals Reveal

Research helps explain why it's sometimes better to downplay accomplishments.

Posted Feb 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

David Munro/Flickr
Source: David Munro/Flickr

Key Points:

  • Humans "signal" their status by looking or behaving in socially desirable ways, but how such signals are received is dependent on context.
  • If a previously high-status social signal (like a college degree) becomes commonplace, deliberately signaling about it could backfire.
  • Some will instead "countersignal"—deliberately downplaying their social status—to stay ahead of the game. 

In his 2005 bestselling book, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists, Neil Strauss describes how a fellow student of “game” distinguishes himself among male competitors for the attention of a woman on a dating show. 

Most of the competitors bragged about how successful they were, but Strauss’s friend claimed he was a mere “disposable lighter repairman.”

This is an example of countersignaling. 

Signals leak information—abilities, habits, behaviors, etc.—intentionally or otherwise. We can’t always observe personal characteristics. But we can observe actions that credibly signal information about those features. 

How Status Symbols Lose Power Over Time

A college degree is often perceived as a signal of ability. A decent proxy of a person’s ability to think and learn and conform

In the 1970s, only 13 percent of Americans had bachelor’s degrees. Today, more than 30 percent of Americans are college graduates. This has led to an educational signaling race. 

In his book The Case Against Education, the economist Bryan Caplan writes, “The amount of education you need to get a job really has risen more than the amount of education you need to do a job. Bartender, cashier, cook, janitor, security guard, and waiter are now common jobs for college grads.” 

The educational glut has led to 44 percent of young college graduates now working in jobs that do not require a college degree. 

When everyone has a degree, the signal loses its strength. As Caplan writes, “Rising education automatically sparks credential inflation; as credentials proliferate, you must study harder and longer to convince employers to hire you. In an everyone-has-a-B.A. dystopia, an aspiring janitor might need a master’s to land a job.” 

There can be an arms race for physical attractiveness, too. 

In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “If all our women were to become as beautiful as the Venus de Medici, we should for a time be charmed; but we should soon wish for variety; and as soon as we had obtained variety, we should wish to see certain characters in our women a little exaggerated beyond the then existing common standard.” 

When the exceptional becomes commonplace, we get used to it. We habituate. If everyone around us became hotter, our subjective standards would rise in lockstep.

The author Matt Ridley wrote a fascinating book called The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. The title is a reference to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. 

In the story, the Red Queen says to Alice “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Employers used to want high school graduates and now want college graduates. Later they’ll demand applicants have master’s degrees.

Someone today wants a cute partner. But if every suitor is cute, they’ll want an even more attractive person. But every suitor is hot, they’ll want the hottest person they can possibly get. 

Education and attractiveness are assessed in relative terms. We don’t evaluate on an objective scale. 

If people were offered a chance to magically increase their earnings by $5,000 a year, most would gladly take it. But if people were offered a chance to magically increase their earnings by $5,000, but all of their friends and coworkers would get $20,000, few would take that deal. They would be richer in absolute terms. But in relative terms, compared to their peers, they’d be poorer.

Why Countersignaling Can Be Effective

Back to Neil Strauss and his “disposable lighter repairman” friend. The guy was trying to distinguish himself from his competitors by trying not to show off to the woman on the show. He was trying to impress her by trying not to impress her.

In a paper titled “Too Cool for School? Signaling and Countersignaling” the economists Nicholas Feltovich and Richmond Harbaugh wrote: 

“The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays. Minor officials prove their status with petty displays of authority, while the truly powerful show their strength through gestures of magnanimity. People of average education show off the studied regularity of their script, but the well-educated often scribble illegibly. Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against this character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response.” 

In other words, sometimes the strongest signal is refusing to play the signaling game (which itself sends a signal. There’s no escaping signaling). 

Research in linguistics has found that compared with lower- and upper-class people, middle-class people are more careful and precise in the way that they speak. They tend to enunciate more clearly—what linguists call “hypercorrection.” 

The middle class, more status anxious, pay more attention to how they speak. The upper class can countersignal by being more relaxed in their speech patterns. 

In his book Discover Your Inner Economist, economics professor Tyler Cowen discusses countersignaling in the context of book covers. He writes, “If a book lists 'Ph.D.' after the author’s name, be wary. The author needs those letters to signal his importance. It usually means the author is not used to interacting with peers, is appealing to the gullible, or is making questionable claims. Stephen Hawking does not use those three letters.” 

Other research has found that status is associated with the use of jargon. A recent study led by Columbia University researcher Zachariah Brown found that authors at lower-ranked universities used more linguistic complexity in their dissertations compared to authors from higher-ranked schools. 

This effect was accounted for in part by the author’s concerns about audience evaluation rather than clarity—they cared more about impressing fellow academics than being clear. 

This anxiety among academics seems to extend beyond just Ph.D. students. A study in the Journal of Mathematical Economics titled “False Modesty: When Disclosing Good News Looks Bad,” found that faculty at more prestigious universities are less likely to use formal titles on their voicemail messages (“You have reached Professor So-and-So’s office”) and in their course syllabi. 

The key argument in the paper is in some cases, reporting good news can make a person look bad. For example, if an achievement can be easily accomplished, then disclosing that you have accomplished it can make you look bad, or insecure, or silly. 

If you are already high-status, then disclosing good news might also be a bad idea. If you are doing well, you look bad when you brag about accomplishing something people expected you to do anyway. You can countersignal by withholding the news. Or have someone else disclose it for you. 

The first time an author reaches the bestseller list, it might be endearing to see them write a long social media post or thread expressing amazement and humility and gratitude. But the tenth time that author writes a bestseller, that same long post might be viewed as gauche. 

One great example of countersignaling is Malcolm Gladwell’s Twitter bio: “Skinny Canadian.” Most people have read his books or know someone who has read them. He doesn’t have to signal; he can countersignal.

How Status Affects Countersignalling

But most people can’t countersignal. If one is already a respected person, countersignaling conveys positive information about them. If one is not, then countersignaling can backfire. 

For example, a study by the evolutionary psychologists Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller found that when a person uses self-deprecating humor—a form of countersignaling—people rate them as more attractive. 

But only if the person is high-status. For low-status people, using self-deprecating humor (countersignaling) seems to backfire. 

The researchers write that high-status individuals “can more easily afford to make fun of themselves” and that “the use of self-deprecating humor by low-status individuals may be counterproductive, suggesting depression, defeatism, subordination, low self-esteem, and/or low mate value. On the other hand, if an individual has achieved high social status, they are unlikely to have truly low conscientiousness, extraversion, or emotional stability, and they must show reasonable agreeableness often enough to make friends and win support.”

In short, low-status people who countersignal lower their status even more. But high-status people who countersignal increase their status even more.

A quote from Golda Meir captures this idea: “Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.”