Intellectualism Signaling

In earlier posts here and here I discuss signaling, but I want expound on this further, specifically ‘intellectualism signaling’.

Signaling is actions and mannerisms that are intended to boost one’s social status among like-minded peers. Such mannerisms can include actions (writing, activism, etc.) and aesthetics (physical appearance, materialism, etc.).

I define two types of signaling: intellectualism signaling and visual/materialism signing.

The latter is much more primitive and mainly done to satisfy biological urges, in courting the opposite sex but also in some circumstances boost status, ultimately to increase the probability of procreation. Examples include a muscular man wearing a tight shirt to accentuate his physique. Or someone buying a fancy car or a fancy watch to impress a girl or his friends. Material possessions and visual musculature signal wealth and strength, which are traits some women are seek in men.

The former, intellectualism signaling, is slightly more complicated, and I think more interesting.

Signaling, according to Wikipedia, is defined as:

In contract theory, signaling (or signalling: see American and British English differences) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). For example, in Michael Spence’s job-market signalling model, (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer believes the credential is positively correlated with having greater ability and difficult for low ability employees to obtain. Thus the credential enables the employer to reliably distinguish low ability workers from high ability workers.

I define this type of signaling as ‘intellectualism signaling’, and it has become very prevalent since 2008 in our competitive economy and society that increasingly rewards intellectualism and ‘results’ (individualistic traits) over collectivism and cooperation.

Intellectual signaling can include any intellectual activity that is public and unpaid. Teaching a math class is not signaling, but answering questions in an online math community is because it’s public and there is no expectation of pay. The reward, rather than money, is a boost in ‘expert status’, which is why this category is the same as ‘expert culture’.

If intellectualism signaling, unlike visual signaling, does not seem to fulfill a biological function (procreation), so why is it important, so prevalent? As I explain in In Search of Fulfillment, power, which comes from a boost in social status, elicits positive feelings, as much if not more, as material possessions: people trade time (unpaid experts answering questions through sites like Mathoverflow) and money (an alumni buying a building bearing his name) for power and status, in the former performing feats of intellectualism to boost status even if such acts do not have quantifiable economic return:

Part of the reason has to do with signaling and social status from other like-mined peers that comes from performing difficult feats of intellectualism, even if such feats don’t pay well. The gains in status are valuable, even if such worth cannot be as easily quantified in an economic sense. Popularity, even if it’s only as an esoteric celebrity, means feeling good, endorphin flowing, etc. If people pay money for entertainment and drugs that are supposed to elicit these feelings, then it must be worth something. For example, wealthy alumni trade money for status in having buildings named after them or through philanthropy, creating a legacy that will outlive their lives.

Stories and shared narratives, as signaling, is a common means of intellectualism to boost social status. If someone posts story about ostracism and getting bullied in high school and the story receives ‘up-votes’ and other tokens of adulation, the writer’s status rises even though he’s not richer, nor did he build anything. In the past, power and status was through nobility, industry, government, physical strength, or wealth, but ‘intellectualism culture’ and ‘expert culture’ has enabled otherwise ordinary people to hold some degree of power and status. Intellectualism, unlike connections, is an internal trait and is thus highly meritocratic. Given how much the post-2008 economy prizes intellectualism, intellectual wealth is almost tantamount to monetary wealth – if not more.

Careers have been built on simple stories, an example being Obama, whose memoir Dreams from My Father helped launched his political career. By mentioning Obama, I’m not denigrating stories and the people who tell them, but I’m amazed by the power of the medium. Many Medium authors have gone massively viral telling stories – the fat passenger on the plane, the article I linked to here, both which went hugely viral, and so on. I guess, the point is, if you want an inexpensive but not necessarily easy way to boost your social status, tell a good story – and or – write the next ‘great American article’. Knowledge really is power, more so than ever.

Apologia signaling – posts on social media (Tumblr, Facebook, LiveJoural, Medium, etc.) about being misunderstood and other types of introspection – can also count as intellectualism signaling through telling stories. This includes ‘naval gazing’, a label that is often used pejoratively, but includes articles about intellectual topics (coding, economics, start-ups, etc.) written from a first-person perspective, often with anecdotal evidence but also technical analysis, and a high caliber of writing ability. This style can be annoying in its tendency to overgeneralize or ‘lump’ people into simple, reductionist categories (rich vs. poor). An example of this type of signaling is Siderea’s long-winded article on class, which combines a personal narrative with fairly complicated, in-depth economic analysis of class structures in America. This signals intellectual competence to like-minded peers who also value intellectualism.

Virtue signaling involves narratives to convey sentimentalism, with facts and objectivity tending to be less important than promoting a social cause. Too many people lump all signalling with ‘virtue signalling’, even though virtue signaling is just one type of signalling. In recent years, with the post-2013 SJW-backlash and rise of centrism and rejection of ‘low information’, virtue signaling and pandering actually seems to have lost its effectiveness, and people who resort to it tend to be called-out, even by the peers the are trying to impress (examples being classically-minded liberals criticizing SJWs). Ideologically, this can both ways, with liberals promoting ‘social justice’ as signing progressiveness to like-minded liberals, and conservatives tending to promote the virtues of traditionalism to other conservatives. Virtue signaling may be the lowest form of ‘intellectualism signalling’, as it tends to require little intellectual rigor and is quite partisan in nature, and the writing ability is mediocre.

Related to the Wikipedia definition, although philosophy has few ‘real world’ applications, an advanced degree in philosophy signals to employers and peers an above-average ability to read and comprehend difficult texts as well as an above-average ability to make inferences from disparate pieces of information – skills that not confer status in an intellectualized cultural enthronement but are skills employers seek. A person who has a PHD in a STEM subject (which I include philosophy as ‘STEM’) has a high-IQ and thus can learn and retain difficult material quickly, so an employer will be able to quickly get him up to speed on any task, not just tasks pertaining to physics, philosophy, or math

Then you have ‘intellectualism-wealth signing’, which is is related synthesis of wealth and intellectualism, as embodied by the likes of Musk, Zuck, Gates, Buffett, Bezos, and Martin Shkreli. Wealth and displays of wealth as measured by bank statements and trading accounts, if obtained through intellectual means, is a valid form of intellectualism, in contrast to ostentatious materialism signaling (fancy cars, big home, Rolex, etc). Based on my own empirical observations on Reddit and elsewhere, many Millennials are rejecting ostentatious materialism in favor of intellectualism-wealth signing. For example, a bank statement showing wining stock trades is an example of intellectualism-wealth signing, because making a lot of money in the stock market, when most people fail, is a an intercultural endeavor, requiring a high-IQ. Founding a hugely successful web 2.0 company or making a lot of money as an Amazon self-publisher are other examples.

Last and probably not least, there is counter-signaling, which Wikipedia defines as showing off by not showing off, or by playing humble: for instance, the nouveau riche are known to flash their cash – expensive champagne and brand new sports cars – while those with old money are more understated, and may drive an old 1989 Volvo. Instead replace, ‘nouveau riche’ with ‘low-information rich’, in contract to ‘intellectualism-wealth’ that is more humble. Counter-signaling also ties into the rejection of ‘low information’ by intellectual circles. Signalling too strongly may be a sign of being too beholden to a belief, as if converted, so counter-signaling is a way of, incidentally, of signalling open-mindedness and other intellectual traits, than being too narrow-minded and and provincial. Pre-2013, for example, the vast majority of liberals online seemed to support social justice causes and then in 2013-2014 there was split, as some on the left realized they had taken their activism and virtue signaling ‘too far’, so ‘counter-signaling’ moves the pendulum closer to the middle as a way of promoting more intellectual honesty and less partisanship/tribal behavior. This lead to the rise of ‘rationalism’ and a return to centrism. Also in 2013-2014, we saw the rise of the ‘alt right’, which uses counter-signaling to question conservative orthodoxy on certain issues such as abortion, in questioning the ‘pro-life temptation’. The article generated a staggering 440 disqus comments, in contrast to the 20-40 comments of a typical Radix article, indicating considerable debate. The debate process itself, to always be questioning than just shutting up and being spoon-fed pablum, is a major part of what differentiates the ‘alt right’ from the ‘mainstream’.

Comments are closed.