Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Costly Signaling, or, Why Trump Says Outrageous Things

The political strategy of Trump and his friends might be summarized as 1) divide the country into two warring sides, and 2) pose as the perfect champion of one side. As Thomas Edsall explains, this is why Trump often says things that seem pointlessly outrageous and offensive:

According to Joshua Greene, a professor of psychology at Harvard, Trump is expert at sending “signals that are music to the ears of his base,” signals that ineradicably affirm his membership in the populist right wing of the Republican Party.

Green argued in an email that when

Trump says that a judge of Mexican ancestry can’t do his job, or attacks women for their physical appearance, or makes fun of a disabled reporter, or says that there are good people on both sides of a violent neo-Nazi rally, or that Haiti is a “shithole.” or that the “Second Amendment People” can maybe do something about Hillary Clinton, Trump is very deliberately and publicly excommunicating himself from the company of liberals, even moderate ones.

In Greene’s view, Trump offers a case study in the deployment of “costly signals.”

How does it work? Greene writes:

Making oneself irredeemably unacceptable to the other tribe is equivalent to permanently binding oneself to one’s own. These comments are like gang tattoos. And in Trump’s case, it’s tattoos all over his neck and face.

At the same time, Trump’s “costly signals” make his reliability as a protector of white privilege clear.

John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, described the signaling phenomenon in a 2017 Edge talk as an outgrowth of what he calls a “coalitional instinct.”

“To earn membership in a group,” Tooby says, “you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups.”

This, Tooby notes, encourages extremism: “Practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals, because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty.” Far more effective are “unusual, exaggerated beliefs,” including “alarmism, conspiracies or hyperbolic comparisons.”

This phenomenon of “costly signalling”  drives a lot of political behavior in the US right now. Many statements are made all over the place simply from a desire to show everyone where you stand in a powerful way. I think the popularity of something like QAnon is all about this, about signaling that you are such a strong Republican you will consider anything; or, on the other side, talk about Revolution.


Shadow said...

I think he has it backwards: extremism demands the signaling.

David said...

The difference is that, on the Republican side, this costly signalling is at the heart of their party, a feature of their convention, and a daily theme of their leader's public statements. The Democratic convention had very little to virtually none of the left-wing equivalent of that. Joe Biden didn't winkingly signal that he thinks the American Revolution was a coup by slaveholders. Michelle Obama didn't talk about how we should cancel J. K. Rowling or Louis C. K. There was no hint that it's all really about getting rid of all police and all of us moving into Occupy camps and communicating in gestures. Those kinds of things remain the province of an extreme and mostly unloyal and unhappy fringe of the Democratic coalition, like the John Birch Society was in the Republican party of the 1960s. Only now the Birchers ARE the Republican Party.

On QAnon, I'm wary of softpedalling that threat. Sure, a lot of it is about allegiance signalling. I also doubt most Nazis had read Mein Kampf, or took everything in Der Sturmer literally. That ended up being no help to anyone. Remember, by the end of that article on Boogaloo, a lot of people are dead.

G. Verloren said...


I think it works both ways. Extremists demand signaling, but outsiders looking to join an extremist in-group can signal their intent, at least, by proactively signaling.

At the end of the day, extremism is Tribalism writ large - "Us vs Them" on the maximal scale. To appeal to extremists, you need to deny the possibility of common ground, and in so doing indicate that you are on "The Right Side".

The world is not binary, and yet extremists see it that way, and only trust those who speak of it that way. If you don't, you are instantly suspected as a rival tribe.