On Virtue Signaling

John David Pressman

The following is adapted from a post I made on an online forum in reply to someone using the phrase ‘virtue signaling’ in the painful way that has become common recently which strips it of meaning. I decided to delete that post on second thought since reading their words more closely the use was defensible and it’s not kind to call somebody out in public like that. However what I wrote is something I would like to be able to link people to in the future so I’m putting it here.

In evolutionary psychology, ‘signaling’ is when you do something that ostensibly has negative fitness to prove you can get away with it. Like how peacocks grow a beautiful multicolored tail that serves no purpose but consumes lots of resources, to prove that they have excess resources to burn and are therefore extra fit. One argument goes that a college degree is merely a selection filter for intelligent conscientious people with enough money to pay for it1, which would make it signaling gone rampant that put an entire generation in debt.

Virtue signaling then would be when you do something costly like donate 10% of your income to charity, which has the dual benefits of making you seem generous and pointing toward your ability to live on only 90% of your income without seeming a braggart. Another form of virtue signaling is making bold statements which might get you punished to prove you’re socially powerful enough not to worry about the consequences, or avoid them entirely.2 For example, if your ‘scientific’ field is socially powerful you might be able to get away with putting awful arguments in your textbook to prove that you’re so powerful nobody dares call them out.3 A related but distinct form is supporting unpopular causes for much the same reasons.

Virtue signaling is NOT: Trying to portray yourself as more virtuous than you actually are (though this is tangentially related), ‘anything that has to do with left wing politics’, ‘anything that has to do with arguments based around purity intuitions’, ‘anything someone else says that you don’t like’, etc.

Finally, be careful reaching for complex explanations like this as a first response to something. People donating to charity are probably doing it because they sympathize with someones plight and want to help. That person saying something outrageous and provocative on twitter may just be venting. The textbook author might just be bad at argument. People are probably mostly sincere when they say things. Stay calm, apply Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation that fits the evidence is usually the most likely.

  1. Rather than its stated purpose of providing an education to hungry minds. 

  2. This mechanism might help explain otherwise seemingly inexplicable things said by political extremists on whatever side you like to rage at. 

  3. It is left as an exercise for the reader if anybody would ever actually do this (let alone if it would ever make sense to actually do this), even if they were only aware it’s what they’re doing at a near unconscious level.