Virtue signalling

What is the opposite of a Like on social media? These days, perhaps the closest thing is an accusation of "virtue signalling." Given the current age, one of recursive outrage hurtling to and fro through online conduits at ever increasing frequency, someone was sure to try to claim higher moral ground through accusations of lazy armchair posturing.

James Bartholomew laid claim to coining the phrase in a self-congratulatory article which seems so smug in tone that perhaps he was trying to head off even a hint of faux modesty that might be interpreted as virtue-signalling (the subhead reads "It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead").

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).

Given the culture world war that is 2017, last week the NYTimes published an essay on virtue signalling. The implications of the term seem fairly self-evident, but for those who are new to the phrase, the piece provides a primer.

When people offer their vehement condemnation of some injustice in the news, or change their Facebook profile photos to honor the victims of some new tragedy, or write status updates demanding federal action on climate change, observers like Bartholomew smell something fishy: Do these people really care deeply about the issue du jour? They probably aren’t, after all, out volunteering to solve the problem. What if they’re motivated, above all else, by simply looking like people who care?
This sort of ostentatious concern is, according to some diagnoses, endemic to the political left. A writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote this summer that virtue signaling ‘‘has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic’’ on the left, ‘‘as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s syndrome.’’ There are plenty on the left who might agree. It’s not difficult to find, in conversations among progressives, widespread eye-rolling over a certain type of person: the one who will take a heroic stance on almost any issue — furious indignation over the casting of a live-action ‘‘Aladdin’’ film, vehement defense of Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, extravagant emotional investment in the plight of a group to which the speaker does not belong — in what feels like a transparent bid for the praise, likes and aura of righteousness that follows.
The charge of virtue signaling, though, has metastasized well beyond this type of comical figure. Once you’ve decided this ‘‘cultural tic’’ has become universal on the left, almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance. It applies when people express dismay that a robotics team made up of Afghan girls may be barred from entering the United States; when someone frets about the American poverty rate; when The Associated Press shares information about a deadly oil-tanker fire in Pakistan. Every one of these things has been described online as the unholy product of ‘‘virtue signaling.’’

Of course, accusing another person of virtue signalling is its own form of virtue signalling. When I made reference to claiming moral high ground earlier, I should've been more clear. Whe applied to online arguments, moral high ground really means people taking turns sliding a sheet of paper under their feet in succession, ending with both sides about an inch off the ground.

My internet was physically disconnected by mistake last week and I spent a week largely offline, and in the few days since it's been turned back on I've returned back into the aftermath of the Google memo, the day or two we could afford on the North Korean nuclear weapon debacle, and then headlong into Charlottesville. All serious topics, all deeply troubling, but it's the online discourse around them which has quickly destroyed any accumulated peace of mind from my brief internet vacation.

W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" is never far from my mind these days, so spot on it is when applied to current online discourse.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Much of social media, but in particular Twitter, should be regarded as Scolding as a Service. Unfortunately SaaS has already been claimed as an acronym, but it's not too late to tout this moat as a unique feature on their next quarterly earnings call. You can go to any old social media service for some sweet, sweet confirmation bias, but if you want to be scolded repeatedly and on demand, no service can beat Twitter.

I'm not going to spend much time rehashing the usual arguments on virtue signalling. By traditional signaling theory, much of online signalling, not just instances of moral indignation, is weak by its very nature.

One of the core tenets of signalling theory is that the best and strongest signals are the costliest ones, the canonical example being the peacock's tail. Human equivalents abound; if you drive a half million dollar Ferrari convertible down a busy thoroughfare, your message gets across clearer than if you're driving a $70,000 BMW. Since so much that is done online is inherently low cost, online signals are going to suffer from an amplitude problem in general.

[Some claim that the casual dress among Bay Area billionaires is some variant of that theory of costly signals, but I consider it to be the same; the costly signal there is the demonstration of power in disregarding fashion norms. You have such reputational capital that you need not even resort to traditional signals like nice clothes, like some normie.

It is surprising that ways of attaching verified cost or Talebian "skin in the game" to one's online signals hasn't been tried online. Perhaps an avatar change that can't be made for free but can only be purchased through a donation to some charity, almost like a virtual outfit in some MMORPG. Occasionally someone will match donations to a charity, which is similar, but one of these social networks with an economist on staff is sure to suggest a platform solution at some point.]

This long detour on virtue signalling brings me back to the VC sexual harassment revelations earlier this year. It wasn't that long ago and already it seems like a scandal from another age.

I wrote about the issue from the angle of mutual knowledge becoming common knowledge. In the wake of one woman after another coming forward with their stories of being harassed by various Silicon Valley investors, many in the tech community expressed outrage, and like a moral gag reflex, many of those who expressed outrage were hit with accusations of virtue signalling.

Whether or not you believe those who joined the chorus of outrage when the scandals broke, what they were doing in that context serves an entirely different and important signaling function.

Recall that until the story about Justin Caldbeck broke, many women had held back for years on sharing their own stories, many out of concern they wouldn't be believed, that they might be blackballed by the largely white male investing elites of Silicon Valley. Based on the names of those investors who acknowledged and corroborated the stories of various accusers, the women were right to be concerned.

In fact, many people, myself included, had to update our priors about the incidence of such sexual harassment, and the types of people who might commit such acts. Some who took a fall from grace were highly respected, smart, well-known investors, and the news that yet other stories of harassment might be buried by non-disparagement clauses meant that many had to recalibrate their priors upward even more. The Google memo was a similar issue that had people updating their priors as the volume of visible support both inside and outside the company for Damore took many by surprise.

When a whole lot of people are rapidly updating their priors, signalling where you stand, whether it's virtuous posturing or not, can serve another purpose. It can help people to clarify where you lie on the distribution in question.

Sorry white male investors accusing others of virtue signalling, it may feel silly to have to publicly declare that you're not going to harass the next woman (especially an Asian woman) entrepreneur that you come into contact with, but after hearing so many stories of harassment from such a wide variety of white male investors, many in the community honestly have no idea which of you are prone to such behavior. Clearly, identifying those of you who are wasn't as simple as identifying, say, a white supremacist, who might be Sieg Heiling or waving a Confederate or Nazi flag in public. The sexual harassers didn't have any such villainous mustache or common identifying feature other than being white men. If the signs were clearer, those stories wouldn't have made for such explosive news.

Signaling for one side or the other to help people establish proper priors really matters when it comes to sexual harassment. The more female entrepreneurs believe that the majority of investors are going to give them a fair shake, rather than try to exploit the inherent leverage in the investor-entrepreneur relationship, the more those entrepreneurs will feel safe raising money and calling out bad behavior when it does occur.

In other times in history, having proper priors was a matter of life or death. So for white male investors, to take the example at hand, it could certainly be worse. You could be black, and have to signal that you're not a criminal every day you walk around in public, for fear of being arrested or worse, shot. You could be female and have to signal every day of your life that you're not passive, that you're technically capable of doing your job. For most of history, being white and a man has been the default, meaning that those lucky enough to be in that group have had no socially inherited identity debt to manage or pay down.

More and more, white men, and white people, are being treated as a distinct segment, with their own cultural brand, rather than as the default. Some of this is by choice, some of it is exogenous pressure.

The transition won't be easy. It never is, because it is difficult to notice the absence of something. It's easier to detect if you reverse your surroundings. When I travel to a place like Taiwan, where the majority of people around me share my ethnicity, I feel a bit like Kal-El landing on Earth, a planet with much lower gravity than my home. I feel a weight lifted off of me. The journey many white men are taking now is the reverse.

In the trailer for the next Justice League movie, Barry Allen, the Flash, turns to Bruce Wayne at one point and asks, "What are your superpowers again?"

Ben Affleck, in what will likely be the best line in the entire movie, responds, "I'm rich."

He should have said, "I'm white." It may be suffering a bit of depreciation recently, but it's still just about the most effective signal going.


From Wikipedia:

Aposematism (from Greek ἀπό apo away, σ̑ημα sema sign) was a new term coined by Edward Bagnall Poulton for Alfred Russel Wallace's concept of warning coloration. It describes a family of antipredator adaptations in which a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators. Aposematism always involves an advertising signal. The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous animal colorationsoundsodours or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm.
Aposematism is exploited in Müllerian mimicry, where species with strong defences evolve to resemble one another. By mimicking similarly coloured species, the warning signal to predators is shared, causing them to learn more quickly at less of a cost to each of the species.
Warning signals do not necessarily require that a species actually possesses chemical or physical defences to deter predators. Mimics such as the nonvenomous California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), which has yellow, red, and black bands similar to those of highly venomous coral snake species, have essentially piggybacked on the successful aposematism of the model. The evolution of a warning signal by a mimicking species that resembles a species that possesses strong defences is known as Batesian mimicry.

Some wonderful terms in there like aposematism, Müllerian mimicry, Batesian mimicry. I recently wrote about the value of using rhetoric to encode one's ideas. German is gloriously efficient in its compression, with single words like schadenfreude for phenomenon that require many more words in English, but fields like science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology offer their own concise gems of language.

The rest of the entry is a good read on why aposematism might have come to be despite seeming to be an evolutionary paradox, and just what Müllerian and Batesian mimicry refer to.

What intrigues me about aposematism is how it functions as a really overt form of signaling. I find myself reaching for the framework of signaling theory often these days, perhaps because once you've lived a certain number of years, you've had a chance to see the relative effectiveness or futility of past signals, but you're not yet old enough to be at the point where your remaining days are so few or your status in the world so static that signals no longer matter.


A few days ago Tesla Motors announced a new Ludicrous Mode for the Model S.

While working on our goal of making the power train last a million miles, we came up with the idea for an advanced smart fuse for the battery. Instead of a standard fuse that just melts past a certain amperage, requiring a big gap between the normal operating current and max current, we developed a fuse with its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery. It constantly monitors current at the millisecond level and is pyro-actuated to cut power with extreme precision and certainty.
That was combined with upgrading the main pack contactor to use inconel (a high temperature space-grade superalloy) instead of steel, so that it remains springy under the heat of heavy current. The net result is that we can safely increase the max pack output from 1300 to 1500 Amps.
What this results in is a 10% improvement in the 0 to 60 mph time to 2.8 secs and a quarter mile time of 10.9 secs. Time to 155 mph is improved even more, resulting in a 20% reduction.
This option will cost $10k for new buyers. In appreciation of our existing P85D owners, the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode will be offered for the next six months at only $5k plus installation labor.

You might wonder why Tesla would even bother releasing a $10,000 upgrade that buys you 0.3 seconds in your 0-60 time. Ludicrous indeed, right? I supposed it could be justified as just a publicity stunt, and it did garner more press than the other announcements they made, but I believe it just emphasizes just how critical it is to Tesla's success to show that going electric does not mean any sacrifice in performance. In many cases they now tout electric cars as a superior experience to ICE cars.

I don't think Tesla would have succeeded any other way except by starting with a high end performance car and then moving down market. At the time their first model the Roadster was released, electric cars were almost all hybrids, and the pure electric cars that were on the market had really low range, in the neighborhood of 80 miles on a full charge, so they were of necessity second or third cars for people with short commutes. The cars were very underpowered; it wasn't a stretch to say electric cars were like glorified go-carts.

There were very few public chargers, if any, and installing a charger at home was a costly upgrade from the electric company, if it was even available in your area. Electric cars were toys for a sliver of the wealthy.

The Roadster, but more the Model S, was the first electric car to credibly stand in as both a practical and sexy alternative to ICE cars. When it was first announced, there were still very few public chargers, and even today the public charging situation is meager when compared to the number of gas stations. Going electric would still be a sacrifice for many drivers today.

That is why the performance of the Model S in other respects was so critical. The battery life for high end models, around 260 miles on a full charge, was finally enough for more than just a short daily commute (it's not surprising to me at all that most of the sales of the Model S have been for the largest battery, to the point where they dropped the low end model). Battery life was critical to the first iPhone's appeal, and it's even more critical to electric cars because of the limited charging infrastructure.

The styling of the car was a fine balance between conservative and overly aggressive. No matter what you think of it, though, it didn't scream economy car like most compact electric cars before it. The designer came from a background designing European luxury cars, and the lines of the car evoked those more than boxy economy cars.

The 0-60 performance was a thrill then, and it's absurd now. Ludicrous, you might say. I test drove a P85D with insane mode turned on and the acceleration from a standing stop to 60 miles per hour was so extreme I felt dizzy and had to pull over for a few seconds to regain my equilibrium. It's like nothing you've ever felt before unless you're the circus clown they shoot out of a cannon. That so many YouTube videos showed the Model S dusting BMW's, Audi's, Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis on race tracks underlined the fact that you were sacrificing no performance whatsoever in going electric. In fact, you could now be the fastest kid on the block.

Add all of that up to other talking points like the giant touchscreen and ample storage space and what the Model S did was unlock the ability for relatively wealthy people to signal their concern for the environment without sacrificing anything in driving performance or personal style. It's an expensive signal, but as any knowledgeable sociologist or economist might tell you, the more extreme the signal, the clearer the signal. Driving a Ferrari down the street is a clearer signal than a BMW. The giant tail feathers of a peacock? Ludicrous, perhaps, but a very efficient signal.

Before the Tesla, owning an electric car marked you as an eccentric, a hippie even. Tesla singlehandedly changed the signaling potential of the entire electric car category.

Given the unfriendly car charging context into which Tesla had to launch its electric cars, this is not a market where low end disruption would have worked. The cost of batteries just didn't put that type of price/performance strategy in play. Tesla shook up the market by attacking the high end, luxury car market, just as they had to, and to compete in that segment, sometimes you have to pull up along side the ICE sports car at the stoplight and blow it off the line. Sometimes, the way to achieve escape velocity is by achieving a lot of velocity.

Sartorial non-conformity

While people generally adhere to group norms for fear of disapproval or reprimand, anecdotal evidence and the occasional study suggest that high-status folk feel free to break rules—by eating with their mouths open, violating traffic laws, and expressing unpopular opinions. But how is nonconformity interpreted by others? Do we see it as a sign of status? New research, to be published next year in The Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that we do. The authors call the phenomenon the “red sneakers effect,” after one of them taught a class at Harvard Business School in her red Converse.


From Matthew Hutson in The New Yorker.

The red-sneaker effect fits in with a wider body of research on the idea that certain observable traits or behaviors signal hidden qualities by virtue of their “costliness.” For instance, a peacock’s colorful tail feathers make it easy prey for predators, but they tell a peahen that he’s fit enough to sustain the risk. The more one has of the trait to be touted (fitness, say), the less costly the signal (feathers), making the display of the signal a reliable proxy for the trait. This is how conspicuous consumption works: jewelry is costly, unless you’re rich and won’t miss the cash. Similarly, deliberate nonconformity shows that you can handle some ridicule because you’ve got social capital to burn.

The economist Nick Feltovich and his colleagues have done work demonstrating that this kind of behavior—known as costly signalling—can also lead high-status people to avoid being ostentatious. Imagine three groups of people: those with low, medium, and high amounts of a desirable trait, like wealth. Someone without much income would have to make big sacrifices to buy a BMW. If you’ve got a bit more money—you’re a medium—it’s easier for you to signal wealth, and you might buy status symbols so that no one mistakes you for a poor person. A really wealthy person, on the other hand—a high—can distinguish himself from the mediums by choosing not to send costly signals of wealth. If he has enough secondary signals of status—a prime address, a high-profile list of friends—he’ll feel secure in not being mistaken for poor. (Understatement can also work when signalling talent, popularity, or intellect. Thus, Harvard graduates say only that they went to school “in Boston.”)


In other words, you look cool if you break the rules, but only if people know that you broke the rules knowingly.

I hypothesize that playing the contrarian is a simple way to signal non-conformity and power, but it can be a bit of a parlor trick if used too often. There's a fine line between being a reasonable skeptic and someone who just wants to stand off to the side smoking a cigarette.

That Chanel handbag means "hands off my man"

Scientists have known that purchasing designer handbags and shoes is a means for women to express their style, boost self-esteem, or even signal status.

In a new study, University of Minnesota researchers discovered some women also seek these luxury items to prevent other women from stealing their man.

Researchers used five experiments featuring 649 women of varying ages and relationship statuses to discover how women’s luxury products often function as a signaling system directed at other women who pose a threat to their romantic relationships.

“It might seem irrational that each year Americans spend over $250 billion on women’s luxury products with an average woman acquiring three new handbags a year, but conspicuous consumption is actually smart for women who want to protect their relationship,” says associate professor Vladas Griskevicius.

“When a woman is flaunting designer products, it says to other women ‘back off my man.’”

More here on the research methodology. Perhaps the reason women buy new purses so often is to renew the signal strength, indicating the persistence of both income/status and devotion from the mate. As a guy I have a tough time decoding the price and brands of women's handbags so it seems likely the signal is meant for other women.

It is intriguing to decipher the differing symbols of status among different tribes. On Wall Street it's designer brand suits and wristwatches and street addresses, in Silicon Valley it's Twitter followers, IPO's, and invitations to exclusive conferences.