Bryan Caplan  

What Will the Neighbors Say? How Signaling Ossifies Behavior

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Suppose you suddenly discover a far better way of doing X.  Your discovery uses fewer resources, yields higher quality, and even has more positive externalities than Ye Olde Standby.  There's just one catch: your discovery is a discovery.  By definition, no one currently does X your way.

In many cases, you can shrug, say "So what?" and proceed.  If your discovery is "Eating a mango a day keeps the doctor away," go for it.  But open-mindedness often bites the hand that feeds it.  If other people (a) are watching you, (b) will take your new behavior as a sign of non-conformity, and (c) value conformity either instrumentally or intrinsically, then "What will the neighbors say?," is a serious question.  And any serious question is a serious reason not to adopt your discovery despite its merits.

For example, suppose you discover that Star Trek uniforms are cheaper, more comfortable, and safer than conventional clothing.  Before you switch to full-time Trekkie wear, you would be wise to ponder other people's reaction to your fashion statement.  If you're even vaguely connected to mainstream American society, that reaction would probably be very negative.  You'd probably lose your job, your friends, and maybe even your spouse.  (If any).  Why?  Because you're acting weird, and most people loathe the weird... or the correlates of the weird.

Once you take conformity signaling seriously seriously, it's easy to list other negative inferences the neighbors might draw about you if you deviate from Ye Olde Standby.  When you start doing something different, perhaps your neighbors will say that you're arrogant, reckless, disrespectful, traitorous, impious, or crazy.  The list goes on.  While it's conceivable that the neighbors will instead call you brilliant, clever, forward-thinking, or progressive, that's usually wishful thinking.  As any anthropologist will tell you, human beings are conformists through and through.  Goths strive to mimic their fellow Goths, hippies their fellow hippies.  We are the sheeple. 

The lesson: In the real world, signaling naturally tends to ossify behavior - to lock in whatever the status quo happens to be.  If you're an optimist, you can protest, "It's only a tendency."  But even an optimist should admit that this tendency leads to atypically slow and unreliable progress. 

P.S. I am not merely making a thinly-veiled argument against the prospects of online education.  My point is general, and I embrace it generally.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
David N writes:

Star Trek uniforms are only safer if the shirt is not red. If the shirt is red they are extremely dangerous.

Your argument would be more persuasive if you didn't pick an example of noncomformity with such a small, if not completely imaginary, benefit.

ssh writes:

If most cultural innovations are deleterious then conformism would lead to slow but reliable progress.

Tracy W writes:

Wasn't this one of James Stuart Mill's arguments in On Liberty ?

Although I don't know how this theory fits in with ever-changing fashion. Or the change in the last couple of decades that women have begun to ignore it. (I remember I was at high school when the 1970s revival came in, and the school rapidly split between the fashionistas, who adopted it, and the rest of us, who looked at it and said "Well, I always wanted to be fashionable before, but now...").

Pat writes:

I prefer to have a little humility and give all those people established those norms a little bit of credit, unless it's completely obvious that the norm is wrong.

It's not worth the effort to come up with independent assessments of everything in the world. Anyone who'd really research the safety of Star Trek shirts is probably someone to avoid.

Scott Wentland writes:

I take your point that extremely weird behavior almost always sends a bad signal, but I think there is a different story altogether for "being different" on the margin.

Someone who always dresses very differently is likely to send a bad signal, while someone who sometimes dresses a little or subtly different could very well be considered fashionable or expressing a distinct style, sending a good signal.

I think this also applies to online education and a host of other areas where "being different" is valued much more on the margin than in the extreme. For example, brick and mortar universities are increasingly offering online courses as options within their traditional curriculum. More and more, students are now choosing to take a mix of normal, face-to-face courses and online/hybrid courses. Because the change seems to be incremental, and occurring on the margin, there is little, if any, negative signal (one could argue that there is actually a positive signal). Online courses are becoming more normal to more college students, and the incremental nature of the change could be the primary reason for its sustained growth and deviation from the status quo in the long run.

I think the general point you are making here is too strong, and does not seem to hold when you consider a lot of behavior on the margin. In other words, when our grade school teachers told us to "dare to be different," what they probably meant was "dare to be (a little) different, but not too different."

Bill writes:

The shift to online education is already happening, but without the negative signaling. At my school many classes are taken online already, but, on student transcripts you cannot tell whether the student took the class online or face to face.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Bryan, thank you for a very important post, important because what the neighbors say is the big holdout against real progress in the present. No one has been allowed to bring the potential benefits of technology to building and construction, because localities rely on expensive and Luddite methods of the past so as to fund needed local services. We are living in a world where the best potential technology of all is not even given a chance.

Bob Robertson writes:

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Joe Cushing writes:

I really dislike the business suite. I imagine how it got its start and it was because of signaling. Here is what I imagine as I don't think it can really be known:

The wealthiest people in town had very expensive coats. All coats are expensive to begin with and nice ones are even more so. To be seen in such an expensive coat was to be seen as a gentleman, as a high society person, as someone who belongs in upper management and not just an ordinary worker bee. This is because, at the time, only these people could afford such a nice coat. Because of the signalling affect, men wanted to wear these coats even when they didn't need a coat for weather. So the coats began to change in design. Less emphasis was placed on making them warm and more was put on making them look expensive. So today, a suite coat is still just that, a coat. It makes no sense, what so ever, to wear a coat of any kind when it is 90 degrees outside--even if the coat is not designed to be warm. It's still a coat. Now when it is cold outside, the coat is not warm enough to keep you warm, so you must wear another coat over the fancy coat to keep you warm. Because people are wearing these coats in the summer, office buildings have to spend more money on AC. The entire garment is an exercise of stupidity--if we could just get people to see it.

All this said, I own three of them as I am powerless to change the societal requirement that I wear the to get things I want.

Philo writes:

B.C. overemphasizes our conformism, not noting that we are also desperately anxious to catch the next wave of fashion. If you can make people think that your innovation is The Next Cool Thing, they will jump to imitate you. Get people to think of you as a fashion leader and they will, indeed, “call you brilliant, clever, forward-thinking, or progressive.” Admittedly, for most of us that is “wishful thinking,” but some few pull it off!

Another point: weird behavior has this downside, that *probably* the conventional way of behaving is better than, or at least just as good as, the weird alternative. The individual’s “discovery” is probably a *mis-discovery*; the crowd is probably wiser. And even when the discovery really is better, it is probably only *very slightly better*, and the social costs of switching over to it, thereby upsetting the familiar pattern of signaling, would probably outweigh its intrinsic benefits.

I expect B.C. not to appreciate this last point because he undervalues signaling, which actually conveys many other messages besides one’s degree of conformity, messages that it is useful to be able to convey efficiently.

Joe Cushing writes:


I think the word "progressive" is tainted and I would never use it as an adjective to describe something I liked. It has become a doublespeak word that means the opposite of what it seems to mean.

KPres writes:

I imagine that conformity enables new discoveries more than it prevents them, since it's what facilitates social interaction.

Bryan Willman writes:

It's waaaaaay more complicated...

Sometimes, a certain kind of nonconformity mixed with certain expressions of power will cause people to be respectful rather than judgemental. (Even towards me...)

Other places, even amassing the money is a sign of "not being one of us, but rather a devil".

Compare NY business culture with Seattle business culture with, say, rural sub-Saharan Africa.

There is more at work than just conformity - there is politics, community resource management, risk management, power politics, prestige/esteem mechanisms....

(It's really non-conformist to wear cutoff jeans and tee-shirt with a logo on it to work. Unless you also drive a Porsche and hold some title like "partner" - in which case different rules apply. It's lots of fun.)

Doug writes:

You have it backwards. It's not signaling that causes the bias for conformity, it's asymmetrical information and adverse selection.

Most deviations from standard behavior are inferior or deleterious. A small proportion of implemented deviations are beneficial, but outside observers have little to no information about whether they are or not.

That is some people behave in differently because they genuinely found a true improvement. But most people behave differently because they're rebellious, anti-social, socially awkward, too incompetent to behave normally, mentally ill, unstable, foreign, etc. All undesirable traits to avoid association with. Hence there's strong adverse selection.

Signaling might be correlated with conformity bias, but that's only because both are caused by situations of adverse selection. But the signaling doesn't cause conformity bias, in fact it actually ameliorates it. You're trying to conclude that cold medicine causes congestion because both seem to go together.

Signaling allows us to filter out the undesirable from the desirable. We can use social signaling as a type of evidence that the person likely doesn't contain any of the undesirable traits from above. This allows them to actually promote potentially beneficial deviations.

Simple example along the lines of clothing. On many college campuses fraternity brothers are known for being early adopters of unusual fashions, like pastel colors, popped collars, upside down visors, etc.

A typical person probably wouldn't be able to get away with wearing these forward fashions. But in their college communities the fraternity brothers already have social proof that they're relatively normal and cool, by virtue of the fact that they've been accepted by their fraternal organization.

Their fraternity membership acts as a social signaling mechanism. This signaling mechanism gives them more freedom to deviate from conformity than they would be able to without the signaling.

Doug S. writes:

I wore sneakers with my tuxedo at my senior prom.

JohnC writes:

Yeah, the Star Trek uniform example wasn't the greatest (I'm surprised no one mention punting/2-point conversions in the NFL). Here's a better example:

I was a catcher, both in college and in the minor leagues. The aberrant behavior? I wore Olympic lifting shoes in the field, switching to regular spikes to hit. (Briefly: They have a wooden sole and a 2-3" heel. Lifters wear them because they offer a more stable surface, let them squat into a deeper position, increase the range of motion of the ankle, make it easier to keep the back upright, etc.). I did so because, having consulted with various physiologists, trainers, etc., I believed wearing them helped catchers be better able to achieve the most bio-mechanically safe position, with less stress on the knees and back, and had no discernible drawbacks (re throwing, blocking pitches, chasing bunts, etc.). I also preferred not having spikes, as many injuries to catchers are a result of their spikes getting caught (usually during collisions).

Unfortunately, they weren't well received: not because of performances concerns, but (as I was repeatedly told), they look odd, I run funny in them, etc. On a number of times, I was told to stop wearing them (whether I capitulated depended on how well I was hitting at the time).

A related, and broader, example: I overstep the boundaries, both socially and professionally (as, inter alia, a law clerk, lawyer, federal agent, search and rescuer, etc.), of when it's acceptable to go barefoot or otherwise "unshod." I do so because, after 10+ years of researching the question, I (though I am not alone) believe "chronic shoe wearing" has far more physiological drawbacks than benefits. Sadly, at this point, I have more or less relented, at least re the conspicuous aspect (i.e., I resign myself to wearing otherwise normal shoes with minimal, flexible fabric soles, with no heal. Though, no, I don't wear those hideous toe-shoes.).

Mordatar writes:

Your clothing example might be the perfect argument for another case: that when the costs of signaling become too high, signals may well change.
When readymade clothing became first available, it was a sign of relative poverty to wear them. As readymades became much better and much cheaper than tailor-made clothing, all but a few people adopted readymades. Surely many Americans could buy tailor made clothes, specially if that would make them stand out, but they choose not to. If you are not from a particular group, you'd probably be considered weird if you chose tailor made.
Considering that education is extremely expensive right now, one can imagine that if it were mostly signaling, it would be selected against.

Nico writes:

I think many of the commenters' point is that there are countervailing effects that allow nonconformity to sometimes happen. Another point several folks have made is that this process of adverse selection has a purpose, because many/most nonconformists don't have anything to offer. I don't think either of these points contradict the point in Bryan's post. I think there's an important point/question to help buld on these comments, and to Bryan's point: Clearly some people overcome the barrier of negative signaling and have their weird ideas accepted. Other potentially benefitial innovations are quashed before they can take root. So an important question is: under what conditions are the good weird ideas allowed to spread, and how do we make these conditions more common? Put another way: How do we reliably seperate the wheat from the chaff, and get all the wheat we can?

Doug writes:


"Put another way: How do we reliably seperate the wheat from the chaff, and get all the wheat we can?"

Excellent point. Forget about bemoaning the situation of "oppressive" society stopping the "bold" nonconformists (which in itself is a form of signaling). Be productive and try to figure how to get around the barriers.

What I was trying to get to my earlier point is that the solution isn't necessarily less signaling, sometimes it's more signaling. Figure out how to signal that you're one of the good smart innovative non-conformists, not one of the bad anti-social unstable non-conformists.

So let's say you do have a bold new innovation that you think the world could benefit from but is currently avoiding due to conformity bias. Either you came up with it or you're part of a small group of proponents. Here's my advice:

1) Be conservative about how many non-conformist attitudes you promote at any given time. Being parsimonious about what you're non-conformist about signals to other people that you're not just being contrarian. Pick one or a few non-conformist attitudes that you believe in most strongly. Then be perfectly straight-laced and vanilla in almost all your other behaviors and attitude.

2) Learn how to present yourself and work on your people skills. Many would-be innovators ignore the soft-skills because they think of them as BS for phonies and posers. Ignore this train of thought. Practice dressing well, public speaking, clear and concise writing, making pleasant small talk, looking people in the eye, and listening to people even if you think it's not worth it. Know how to convincingly pitch your idea in 30 seconds or less. Dale Carnegie's work here is an excellent starting point.

3) Kind of falls under the above, but build up your contacts through networking. The reason we signal is due to adverse selection and asymmetrical information. The more people you know and the better they know you and hold you in esteem, the less of an issue this is. I'm a lot more likely to listen to a non-conformist idea from someone I know even casually than I am a stranger.

Patrick writes:

The discoverer needs to share the metric they used to prove the new way was better.

Without a way to measure performance, how did the discoverer test the alternatives and declare one the winner?

Steven Kopits writes:

Signaling means that social standing also has important evolutionary value and therefore represents an enduring form of social competition.

It's not all about merit; it's also about conforming the expectations in a conservative society.

Classical liberal:principal::conservative:agent

RPLong writes:

I hate to point out the obvious, but Caplan is not very convincing when he says:

If other people (a) are watching you, (b) will take your new behavior as a sign of non-conformity, and (c) value conformity either instrumentally or intrinsically, then "What will the neighbors say?," is a serious question. And any serious question is a serious reason not to adopt your discovery despite its merits.

Why not? Because if you are brave enough to pursue maverick decisions because they indeed yield superior outcomes, then you probably do not much care whether others adopt your discovery.

I mean, it should be fairly obvious that people who go against the grain are less interested in how well-integrated into society their ideas and actions are, right?

John writes:

Conformity along which margin? The premise appears to be that one's reputation in society is always hanging by the current thread of change.

I suspect there are some possible cases where the innovation discovered is so at odds with the social norms that it could never be adopted. I suspect any such case would be such that the actions required would be considered reprehensible by the society and not merely odd.

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