Monday, January 04, 2016

Virtue Signaling

There was a very telling quote in The Spectator commenting on some of the statements that we make on social media and that we hear from politicians during speeches, ads, and sound bites. They described these statements as “Never mind the unintended consequences. Just feel the good intentions.”

In his article, James Bartholomew is describing the phenomenon of virtue signaling.  We can publicly declare our values quite easily, even in the absence of any idea how to accomplish them or any intention of lifting a finger to do so.  Low taxes!!  World peace!! Freedom and liberty for all!! Even in some cases when we don’t actually believe in the underlying value but we feel it will earn us some social capital (or votes). 

I ranted a little about this after the Paris bombings when all of my contacts changed their profile images into French flags. They signaled that they empathized with the French people.  But did anything come of those image changes?   No.  It is worse when politicians do this because they earn our votes and support as a result. Perhaps misleadingly so.  Political fraud if you ask me. When they signal a virtue, they should at least have the intention of pursuing it when in office.

Then we get to the virtue signal arms race.  If everyone is signaling empathy with France, how do I stand out? Maybe I dump a bucket of ice over my head (Yes, that craze was virtue signaling as well). If you donated real cash to ALS, you did something.  If you stopped at dumping the bucket, you did nothing but virtue signal.

On the other hand, a great editorial in the Boston Globe by Mark Peters takes me to task on my rant.  What I did is a form of virtue shaming. As an authority in behavioral science, I know that the act of changing the image or making the statement causes a cognitive heuristic to kick in, in which we have less visceral need to do something – because we feel we have already made some progress by taking this visible, and yet largely impotent, action.  I called this the “entitlement effect on EID back in August.

So what we end up with is 80% of the population engaged in virtue signaling with no resulting action, 10% of the population engaged in deceptive virtue signaling to exploit social capital, and 10% of the population engaged in virtue shaming of everyone.  A sample so small it doesn’t round up past 0% actually tries to do something.