One of the biggest mental model obsessions I’ve had for the past few years – so consuming that I rarely even mention it in public, and hardly ever on this site as I am still working on fully grasping the implications and mechanics – is something called signaling theory. The gist of signaling theory is that at all times, in all situations, you are broadcasting aspects of your identity, beliefs, personality, and lifestyle to the people around you, often with significant social implications. It exerts such a strong pull on civilization that I consider it second only to the social proof mental model in importance. It interacts with other mental models so efficiently, it often goes unnoticed.
In one of the greatest texts on compliance, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, he discusses how people will break the law easier, such as jaywalking during a red light, when a well-dressed businessman in a suit makes the first move. Likewise, the more expensive the car, the longer people will wait to honk at it if the driver fails to notice the light has turned green.
[mainbodyad]Signaling theory is so powerful that it shows up in the most non-expected of places. There is now some evidence that predators use it subconsciously to identify those can be easily manipulated, as they walk differently from most people (see Psychopath and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability).
Your hair cut, clothing choices, fingernails, fragrance, oral health, speech patterns, accent, nervous ticks, friends, neighborhood, car, education, reading preferences, age, posture, weight, whether you are circumcised or not, arm position, hand movements, cadence, the music you like, etc., all indicate things about you to others. In some cultures, there are certain “in” habits among the rich and well-educated to identify others like them (e.g., the way shoe laces were tied in certain well-to-do prep schools a generation ago). In some areas, there are certain practices that identify you as part of the “in” tribe, often with deep historical or religious significance. The poor or ignorant have certain “tells” as well, making them easy to spot when they are out of place.
You are a radio station. You are always broadcasting. Whether you want to or not, you can’t turn it off as long as you are alive.
You are also a radio receiver. You are constantly interpreting the broadcasts of others in real-time, making snap judgments. Consider the homeless veteran who was recently made over in a now-viral YouTube clip. Even the most rational among you are likely to treat this man very differently depending on how he appears; a tendency long recognized as a plot device in novels and Hollywood movies when the unexpected-rough-around-the-edges rich guy hides in plain site. Imagine the success ratio difference if he were to approach strangers on the street and ask to borrow $5 or use a cell phone; walk into a nice restaurant or discovered lurking around the front of a store at night.
Let’s use an example of someone who is relatively well known, actor Jared Leto. He will drastically change his appearance for movie roles, putting on significant amounts of weight, getting in shape, changing his hair, and modifying his wardrobe, speech, and mannerisms. If you were to meet an ordinary person out on the streets, how differently would you respond based on his appearance if he were a customer, a potential date, a colleague, or a friend? This is the exact same guy; exact same genetics; identical DNA. The only difference: He is broadcasting different signals.
If you saw these three men, even though they are the same person, you would have built-in assumptions constructed around who they were, what they valued, how they lived their life, and whether you were compatible on a personal, emotional, business, friendship, sexual, or religious level. And your brain will have done it instantaneously, constantly modifying it as new information is received. This will influence the quality of his life. For example, even if job performance were the same, there is significant empirical evidence that the second Jared Leto would be promoted much faster, earn much higher salaries, and be treated much better in the workplace than the first and third. He’d probably sell more, too, if he directly interacted with consumers. It matters, so use it to your advantage like a tool.
The signaling theory mental model, when combined with the mere association mental model (poverty and crime statistics for various sub-demographics, biased news coverage over-reporting certain types of crimes), is the foundation of practices such as racial profiling. It explains how the social crime of “flying while Middle Eastern” or “shopping while black” can even exist in the modern world, sometimes in high-profile locations that should know better; snap judgments are made based on past associations and stereotypes as a way to identify perceived threats, even when unfair or irrational. Successful businesses go off data, instead. Due to its suburban footprint, Target, for example, knows that the most likely person to shoplift in their stores is a middle-age, married mother who has several children with her at the time, college educated, with a higher-than-average household income.
Signaling theory is a huge reason people are able to assortatively self-select peers even in alien environments. It’s how drug addicts can identify each other despite having never met or not saying a word.
Dress too nicely relative to your co-workers, you’re perceived as a pretentious jerk in many offices; dress too poorly, and you’re a slovenly bum who doesn’t care about his career (unless you happen to work in Silicon Valley).
Mom jeans? That says a lot about who you are and what you do with your time.
[mainbodyad]Signaling theory is what allows con-men to bamboozle their marks. It makes it possible for non-ethical preachers to extract funds from the poor. It’s one of the reasons you need to understand it – to protect yourself and your family.
Signaling theory is the real power behind economic models such as conspicuous consumption or Veblen goods. In fact, were it not for signaling theory, Veblen goods could not exist as the incentive to acquire for social status capital dissipates.
There is a basic body of academic work devoted to how signaling theory evolved from an anthropological standpoint and why it is an efficient mechanism for society and gene propagation (PDF) that serves as a good place to start. It shows up in spider mating dances and bird calls.
Signaling theory is everywhere. It is a framework through which you can organize and clarify so many things. When you look for it, you’ll spot it. The now-famous recent speech given by Wentworth Miller, when he confessed that he had tried to kill himself multiple times because he realized as a teenager he was gay, includes a remarkable example – he talks about “failing the test”, that he was constantly on-guard, in survival mode, because he was going to do something, move in a certain way, speak in a certain way, accidentally hold his wrist at a certain angle, to give away his secret. He touches on it throughout the speech, but that portion, specifically, starts at 5 minutes 35 seconds. This is signaling theory, distilled in a very elegant way. It’s the single best example I’ve come across in all of my research to date.
Want to see how quickly your world changes if the signals you broadcast shift or if you “fail the test”, to borrow Miller’s words, of having your actual broadcast differ from expectations? It will shock you.
If you are non-religious, start reading the Bible in public every once in awhile and watch the response (flip it if you are religious – skip a few Sundays with the family at church and document the result). People will react very differently to you even if nothing else has changed and you never talk about it verbally.
Not a vegetarian? Purposely remove all meat, without saying a word, whenever you eat with friends. At some point, it will get addressed because the curiosity about the signal changing will be too much.
Live in a conservative area? Put a liberal bumper sticker on your car. Live in a liberal area? Put a conservative bumper sticker on your car. See how differently folks treat you, again, without having said a word.
The brain wants to know. It wants resolution and categorization. It wants clarity. It wants “tags”. It needs them to process more quickly. Signaling theory is all about evolutionary efficiency.
Signaling theory can be used to gain instant social capital, or credibility, with strangers, explaining the use of gang signs or colors, or ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses being able to crack a joke and put others with a similar background at ease.
Signaling theory is why someone with Asperger’s can have such a hard time navigating life – his or her receptor is broken, so it’s impossible to pick up on the non-verbal communication (and almost all communication is non-verbal, or has sub-text not evident in the words themselves).
Walk through your day and begin asking yourself at regular intervals, “What signals am I sending out right now? What does my appearance say about me? What does my language say about me? My conversation habits? The people with whom I surround myself? What does my job say about me? What does my voting record say about me?” Then, follow up with the most important inquiry of all: “Is this consistent with the message I want to be broadcasting?”