the feel of virtue signaling
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Trym Nilsen.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, a study came out regarding something of great interest to me. It’s quite an interesting study, linking as it does two personality traits: the dark triad and virtue signaling. Today, I want to explore both of these traits — and how signaling can influence us all.

the feel of virtue signaling
(Trym Nilsen.)

(This post was one of those situations where I thought we’d be talking about one thing, but once I’d fully read and digested everything, the topic cried out for slightly different treatment.)

Virtue Signaling.

Pretty much anybody expressing an opinion on either the conservative or liberal ends of the political spectrum has likely been accused at some point of virtue signaling. In fact, simply defining it can be difficult, since it’s used so often as an insult.

The Fount of all Knowledge tells us that virtue signaling is “the conspicuous expression of moral values.” The concept arose in the early 2010s (partially as signaling of virtue). However, the guy associated most with its origination, James Bartholomew, introduced the expression in 2015. In his article “Easy Virtue,” he describes an example of it in a Whole Foods poster depicting a mother and child and the slogan “Values Matter.” Of it, he writes:

This [is] a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.

He continues by describing an interview on a TV show wherein one participant accused another of racism:

Mishal was ‘virtue signalling’ indirectly — indicating that she has the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions, one of which is despising Ukip and thus, most importantly, advertising that she is not racist.

Virtue signaling, then, consists of pushing yourself above your in-group’s enemies, demonstrating superiority to them, and gaining favor with your own tribe. Bartholomew notes of it, “Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”

Signaling, Generally.

When Daddy asked me why I did it
I made him laugh out loud
When I told him ’cause the chicks dig it

— Chris Cagle, “Chicks Dig It

Humans utilize a lot of signaling behaviors in general around each other. We tell each other a lot of stuff through subtle cues or common references.

In fact, there’s a whole branch of science devoted to signaling theory. People and animals alike utilize honest signals, as well as a variety of dishonest ones.

Some signals are much costlier to produce and maintain than others, as well. In such cases, the signaling represents a sort of self-handicap indicating (for example) the signaler’s superior physical prowess or financial security.

One dramatic example of signaling remains the so-called “handkerchief signals” of earlier decades. But it’s hardly the only one. Memes represent a popular current signaling method. Someone can communicate a whole world of ideas through one photo of a well-established meme figure. Like this one, for example:

communicating much in one meme
Because obviously, users are gonna do try it anyway, right? That’s the whole point.

Signaling is an important form of communication.

Virtue Signaling as a Communication Tool.

Virtue signaling fits within that larger signaling paradigm. It’s meant to convey ideas to a certain group and to do so efficiently and for the greatest rewards possible within the shortest time, as well as for the least expenditure of effort and resources.

People use virtue signaling for a few different reasons:

  • Demonstrating their affiliation with their in-group.
  • Reiterating their group’s superiority over other groups.
  • Establishing their own good standing within the group.
  • Increasing their position within the group.

As that 2011 paper pointed out, virtue signaling can be beneficial in some ways. It might actually have an impact on group cohesion. It could also aid groups in devising cooperation strategies. Despite how one’s out-group may use it as an insult, it’s not actually always bad. It’s not even inherently bad.

(See endnote for more stuff I really liked about that paper.)

However, virtue signaling can often be a very empty show of virtue without action to back it up. It often consists purely of displaying anger and outrage — or expressing the correct opinion for one’s in-group — for personal gain. These days, the signaler doing this usually wants attention and validation from the rest of the group.

But sometimes, the signaler wants more. In those cases, virtue signals can be combined with another, equally potent form of signaling to achieve much better results.

Virtuous Victimhood.

An especially powerful form of signaling involves painting oneself as a victim. Victim signaling is already a subset of signaling — as is virtue signaling. But here we combine the two and get something way more powerful.

Virtuous victims cry out that they need protection from The Big Bad Enemy That Hates Them Super-Lots Because of Their Virtuous and Proper Membership in the In-Group (TBBE).

To make this manipulation work, the signalers falsely paint themselves as hard-done-by victims of TBBE. At the same time, they send signals communicating their virtuous and proper in-group affiliation to the rest of their group. They call upon the group to provide them resources and attention for protection from the danger the out-group represents, or aid to make up the resources the out-group has denied or taken from them. Or perhaps the virtuous victim simply desires a huge hit of sympathy for their supposed suffering.

I want to make clear here that this definition doesn’t mean someone’s faking all the time. Nor does it mean that anybody using it is bad.

Using the terminology of signaling theory, though, this kind of signaling can be dishonest, meaning that these signalers seek benefits or resources under false pretenses. In this paper, its authors tell us that this double whammy of virtue signaling plus victim signaling can be extremely effective for those using it.

However, it’s obviously also really awful on a personal level to deceive people through this double signaling. But how awful are we talkin’ here?

That was the question these researchers asked recently.

So That Study Thing About Virtue Signaling.

Earlier this month, Reason linked us up to a new 2020 study that links virtuous victim signaling to what psych folks call Dark Triad personality traits (we’ll get to these shortly). It’s actually a bunch of studies all taken together in analysis.

And it is a doozy.

This new study is called “Signaling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities.” (Here’s the whole thing. You can find a good analysis of the study here.) They’re more looking at the kind of virtue signalers who make a big deal about their victim status, not just virtue signalers in general. The researchers say in their abstract:

In our first three studies, we show that the virtuous victim signal can facilitate nonreciprocal resource transfer from others to the signaler. [. . .] We show that individuals with Dark Triad traits—Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy—more frequently signal virtuous victimhood [. . .]. In Study 5, we show that a specific dimension of Machiavellianism—amoral manipulation—and a form of narcissism that reflects a person’s belief in their superior prosociality predict more frequent virtuous victim signaling.

Ouch. So this isn’t just a link. Possessing Dark Triad personality traits predicts this form of double signaling.

Wait, the Dark Triad?

No, it’s not a really tough sports competition.

This paper refers a lot to the “Dark Triad” traits. Here they are:

  • Machiavellianism: the tendency to scheme and seek manipulation and control of others
  • Narcissism: grandiosity, overly-inflated self-esteem, egocentrism
  • Psychopathy: lack of morality and empathy

These traits are called the “Dark Triad” because they combine to form a perfect storm of total-piece-of-shitness, which is like being the human embodiment of the very worst Transformer ever.

YouTube video

Maybe I just wasn’t the target demographic for this stuff growing up.

The very worst people we encounter tend to embody all three traits. And these folks are not only exhausting to deal with for us normies, but also very difficult to help in a clinical setting. Most of the time, they don’t even recognize that they have a problem. Even if they do kinda recognize that fact and seek help, they’re notoriously difficult to treat.

Testing the Virtue-Signaling Hypothesis.

The paper’s writers tested how strong the link was between Dark Triad traits and virtuous victim signaling:

Studies 3, 4, and 6 test our hypothesis that the frequency of emitting virtuous victim signal predicts a person’s willingness to engage in and endorse ethically questionable behaviors, such as lying to earn a bonus, intention to purchase counterfeit products and moral judgments of counterfeiters, and making exaggerated claims about being harmed in an organizational context.

Double ouch. So people who dishonestly signal victimhood tend to be Dark Triad as well.

I mean, to a certain extent we’re not super-surprised, right? But now we’ve got a link demonstrated and predictions made. That’s an objective claim that we can study more in the future. The whole studies are quite a trip — how the researchers devised the tests, who they recruited and how they tested those subjects, and the discussions. It’s all really informative.

Incidentally, the paper’s writers went to quite a lot of effort to insist that they’re not saying that every person sending virtuous victimhood signals is an evil manipulator:

To reiterate, we do not refute the claim that there are individuals who emit the virtuous victim signal because they experience legitimate harm and also conduct themselves in decent and laudable ways. We strongly caution against this interpretation of our findings and the uncritical categorization of people as being good or bad depending on whether or not they publicly communicate their suffering or misfortune. Our conclusion is simply that victim signals are effective tools of social influence and maximally effective when deployed with signals of virtue.

This is an important note to keep in mind.

Virtuous Victimhood Awareness.

Man alive, there’s a lot of folks that want our time, attention, emotional support, and resources, ain’t there? And none of us has enough to give to everyone who wants it. We have to prioritize.

Typically, we’re going to prioritize people belonging to our own main in-groups. That’s normal and very natural. But even within our in-groups (whatever they might be — most of us are members of several at any given time), that can mean we still have a lot of people making demands on us.

So people can stand out from the crowd by making themselves look really really really super-deserving of what they ask of us. Acting like they’re suffering or in distress can really bring out our sympathy — which opens our wallets and keeps us listening and nodding along in response to the signalers’ tales of woe.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but groups that pride themselves on kindness and inter-group trust can fall prey to a skilled Dark Triad manipulator.

It’s a very sad aspect to modern life that we have to be careful about who we give our resources to, nowadays. Without a doubt, lots of people really truly are victims and need help. And they can get lost in the shuffle with all the fakers.

Ultimately, all I can suggest is that we be really careful out there, learn to recognize these signaling attempts, and then step carefully when we notice someone using both at once.

NEXT UP: Recognizing when the roadmap doesn’t actually work. See you tomorrow!


Regarding that 2011 paper (relink): The paper’s author, Joseph Bulbulia, defines “religious traits” for us. He calls them “the psychological characteristics associated with commitments and practices respecting gods. I assume that various institutional, developmental, and genetic factors interact to produce religious traits.” So to him, a “religion” is the sum total of someone’s religious traits. The kicker? He adds, “This term dignifies ignorance with a label, for we know relatively little about the complex factors that interact to express and sustain religious traits.” This peer-reviewed paper also explores how religions might have evolved and what functions religions might have served for early human societies. It’s worth a read. (Back to the post!)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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