The Shifting Signals —

Will We Show Off Differently Post-Pandemic?


If we consider the possibility that everything we do is about status-seeking, do world-changing events like the COVID-19 pandemic shift the signals we try to give off in order to match new values?

The Primer on Signaling

In his breakdown of signaling, Julian Lehr references the book The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler and specifically two key arguments that it makes:

  1. That most of our everyday actions can be traced back to some form of signaling or status-seeking.

  2. Our brains deliberately hide this from us and others.

The ‘signaling’ aspect of this dynamic implies that many of our actions have the deliberate effect of showing off with the aim of increasing our social status. Lehr lists three areas to illustrate:

  • Consumption: luxury items or not, we conspicuously certain products and from certain brands to illustrate our values overtly, whether or not we believe in the values communicated. We may wear athleisure for instance, but do we actually care about fitness?

  • Charity: the difference between whether we actually care about the causes we support or at least just want to show we care a lot.

  • Education: despite the widespread availability of (free) knowledge, there is something to be said about the continued emphasis on reputable schools and standardized metrics of evaluation (that might have little to do with actual competence)

Regardless of the specific area, his article makes the case for how we unconsciously strive to communicate certain positive things about ourselves through our actions, however obliquely we might act.

Paying for Amplification

Things get trickier when we start to look at the way we signal through software and other digital channels. We might be able to show off pictures of our new physical purchases on our feeds, but we can’t quite signal as effectively with a web subscription like you would niche magazines, though we suppose you could show how seriously you’re taking cooking now by posting a New York Times Cooking subscription.

Regardless, for most digital experiences where the barrier to entry is the same for everyone, you can only stand out (and it’s assumed you want to) by paying to amplify your signal, whether that means being able to send more or longer messages, getting access to other networks, or even something cosmetic that shows you can afford to seem different.

More Noise on the Horizon?

Ana Andjelic explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has killed the modern aspiration economy — of which signaling undoubtedly plays a big part:“In less than a fortnight, it exposed the vulnerabilities of trading in social, cultural, and environmental capital. ‘Access over ownership’ and ‘experiences over possessions’ make great sense if there is access and experiences to be had.”

The crisis has certainly cut off previous pathways of signaling because going out and living it up with reckless abandon has become shameful when compared to the last decade. Does this then mean that our signaling inevitably shifts its weight to different values to boast about (such as health, generosity, and social responsibility over individualism and going against the grain)?

Will the pathways for signaling shift to digital if the consumption of physical experiences never comes back the same? Could the online landscape start getting a little noisier with louder signals from new beacons that just discovered themselves in quarantine? According to Andjelic, it’s already happening with our decisions to self-distance or not.

The Takeaway

This topic has been one we’ve been mulling over a lot recently. In Making It Up #121, Eugene and Charis discussed the role nature/nurture play in signaling, and whether certain products we consume have inherent signaling baked in through the way they’re produced and marketed. For example, while a high-end hand bag is meant to convey quality and luxury, does this message get lost when people buy it because of an influencer’s messaging?  We’re inclined to think (or hope) that most of what we do is the result of at least some part hedonism in that we do stuff because we enjoy it — and not necessarily because we hope we’re gaining social recognition points in the process.

But since we’re only human, we do acknowledge that there are many things we do unconsciously that are neither right nor wrong, but that something else decided for us. Even knowing that this much is true, is there a way we can act genuinely without signaling?