By Dr Penny Morgan
There are those who are proud to say who they are, what they belong to, and what matters to them. But is this an honest communication, or a boastful façade to make people like them? Penny looks at this question from the perspective of animals, humans, and even politicians. How do you feel about badges and titles?
“Wearing badges is not enough.” Billy Bragg (a British singer-songwriter and activist)
Badges, like labels, are signals, with a sender and a receiver. But what are the signals for? What information do they transmit? Are they claiming the moral high ground? And what is virtue signalling?
Honest and dishonest signalling – genuine or insincere?
A sender communicates a signal to a receiver, and the receiver acts upon the signal. Simple, on the face of it. But is it? In some cases, a signal may be "honest" – meaning that the sender is displaying a reliable signal. Anti-predator defences, for example, can be honest – such as the black and yellow stripes of a wasp, the rattle of a rattlesnake, and the vivid markings of the iconic Monarch butterfly. Honest signalling doesn't need to be perfectly informative but it should influence the behaviour of those who receive it in a way that is advantageous to the sender, compared to what would happen if no signal were sent. This promotes the evolution of such honest signals.
But a "dishonest" signal is when the sender is sending out false information to a receiver. An example of a dishonest signal? Mimicry, also used as an anti-predator defence, such as when the Scarlet Kingsnake mimics the poisonous Coral snake, but is not actually toxic itself. This is manipulative. A supreme example of a dishonest signal is given by a type of male wrasse (marine fish) that can disguise itself as a female in order to avoid other more aggressive male competitors, and thus steal mating opportunities with females. They’re known as sneaky copulators! And the green tree frog sits in colder water which deepens his croaks. This makes him more attractive to the ladies. This, too, is bluffing – manipulative and dishonest. A somewhat different example is the Viceroy butterfly, which mimics the Monarch. It used to be thought that the Viceroy was not itself toxic, but it seems that it also has a taste that it offensive to predators. Because both butterflies look alike and both taste bad, predators who have the misfortune of eating either species learn twice as quickly to avoid either butterfly.
The costs of signalling
With every signal or badge there is a cost as well as a benefit. Basically, it’s a strategic interaction where the pros and cons of transmitting a signal are weighed. The examples above are "loud" and can be "overheard". They are memorisable for predators which might prey on the Scarlet Kingsnake, but also, at the same time, they are endangering. So, a balance has to be struck between deterrence and detectability, between honest and dishonest, between advantage and disadvantage.
If dishonest signals outnumber honest ones, then the honest ones are devalued and ignored. And it becomes more advantageous not to use that signal – or badge. For example, functional badges such as blue badges for disabled drivers can be misused by the able-bodied and lose their value. If there are too many abuses of the blue badge, its benefit is undermined. They become dishonest signals. But two thirds of all councils failed to prosecute anyone for misuse, so enforcement is very poor. Thus, the badge is now of uncertain benefit, but maybe the risk of dishonestly using it is worth it.
The term "virtue signalling" is commonly attributed to British journalist James Bartholomew, who says he coined the term in an article published in 2015 in The Spectator, a UK-based publication. He
describes it as "empty boasting". Is the term always used in a pejorative sense? Is it the current term for hypocrisy? Or just about approval seeking? The term implies that it could be referring to a dishonest signal.
Examples of virtue signalling might include a person sharing a post on social media in support of an environmental cause because they want to show others that they're a good person, or wearing a T-shirt showing that they donated money to some cause, because they want others to think that they're charitable.
One example often cited as virtue signalling is "greenwashing", when a person or company deceptively claims that its products or policies are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are. Common examples include fossil fuel companies. For example Total, the French oil giant, has rebranded itself as TotalEnergies. Companies like these put out advertising, flaunting green credentials, which distracts us from their real business. Their publicity routinely misrepresents the sustainability of their activities, avoiding the full scale of their greenhouse gas emissions and over-representing clean energy investments. Total has no plans to reduce oil and gas production by 2030. Its planned budget spend on green projects is less than 2% of up to $16 billion dollars. Clearly, their advertising looks like virtue signalling.
Is it possible to detect whether someone is virtue signalling or actually signalling honestly? Virtue signalling by wearing a badge is cheap and costs nothing. You’re literally sending signals to improve your standing with your in-group. Bumper-sticker signalling, demonstrating you belong with an in-group via simple slogans and signs, portrays shared values. Green number plates have been proposed for electric cars. Is this honest signalling or "holier-than-thou" signalling? Presumably, it costs nothing extra. Or consider former ministers of health displaying badges (image below).
Virtue, on the other hand, should cost you something – socially, politically, or financially. Sometimes it may not match the expectations of the people around you. Holding to virtue might even put you at odds with friends and colleagues. But the biggest danger by far is that both those wary of virtue signalling and those accused of virtue signalling are themselves mis-labelled, leading to the infamous "culture wars". Perhaps, as Billy Bragg says, we all need to do more than just wear badges, including me – I wear an Extinction Rebellion badge and have never demonstrated! I haven’t yet earned my humanist badge, either.