Virtue Signalling


Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group. The concept arose in signalling theory (the study of intraspecies communication), to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious.

Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action. This more recent usage of the term has been criticized for misusing the concept of signalling and encouraging lazy thinking.

Within evolutionary biology, signalling theory is a body of theoretical work examining communication between organisms. It is concerned with honest signals. For example, a peacock’s tail is an honest signal of his fitness, since a less fit peacock would only be able to produce a less spectacular tail. Similarly, signalling is considered within economics. A bank’s impressive architecture may serve as a signal of its financial soundness, since a less well-endowed bank can afford less impressive buildings. Qualifications can signal a person’s ability to an employer, even when those qualifications are not strictly necessary, since a less able job applicant will not be able to achieve the same level of qualification.

Unless signalling is considered, costly religious rituals such as circumcision, fasting, and snake handling look paradoxical in both evolutionary and economic terms. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly rituals, performed publicly, as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment. Such behavior is sometimes described as ‘virtue signalling.’ Over time the term was adopted by those outside the field of signalling theory and its definition altered into a pejorative. Cited examples of virtue signalling towards certain issues include: changing social media avatars to support a cause, participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge, faux outrage, and celebrity speeches during award shows.

In ‘The Guardian,’ Zoe Williams described the phrase as the ‘sequel insult to champagne socialist.’ His colleague David Shariatmadari said that while the term serves a purpose, its overuse as an ad hominem attack during political debate has rendered it a meaningless political buzzword: ‘What started off as a clever way to win arguments has become a lazy put down. It’s too often used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to rebutting their arguments.’


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