Signalling Theory

Thanks to Freakonomics and Planet Money I have become fascinated with signalling theory  recently. Here’s a short definition of signalling theory from wikipedia.

In economics, more precisely in contract theorysignalling (or signalingsee American and British English differences) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal).

Pretty straight forward. I want to learn more about it.

The discussion that I have listened to concerning signalling theory has come from the two aforementioned podcasts. Those podcasts have focused on the fact that we all signal people about ourselves all the time. Things we wear, things we do, etc., etc. signal other concerning what groups we belong to and what we value. It might be easier to spot certain groups’ signalling, but we all signal. For example, it is pretty easy to spot the signalling of conspicuous consumption. The little alligators on the shirt send out a pretty blatant message. So do the DC’s on sunglasses and other things. It isn’t just self-conscious teens and shallow adults who signal. The rest of us just use different signals. While our symbols might not be as easy to spot they are still there. These symbols shout out something and the person wearing them is choosing to wear them because they believe somehow that those clothes and accessories convey some message concerning who they are or who they want to be perceived as. Or consider one of the examples used by Freakonomics concerning the purchase of Prii (according to Toyota this is the plural of Prius). I assume that many of you would guess that Prii sell better in certain demographics and areas. Freakonomics indicates that you would be correct in your guess. The purchase of a Prius says something about the person, or at least the person hopes that it says something about them. SUVs do the same thing, just the message is often the opposite.

I’m not judging here because the reality is that we all signal. There is a reason that many Christians wear T-shirts with Christian slang and messages on them and it isn’t about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those who do not know Christ. Nope it is signalling the group you belong to. A stupid example from my own life comes from a mission program called World Changers that I used to do every Summer when I was a youth minister. The first year I went to a World Changers project I noticed that the vast majority of people who had been to previous World Changers projects used the same type of hammer. It was an Estwing. They are great hammers but seriously very few teens or adults use a hammer often enough in their daily lives to need a serious quality hammer. Nope. The reason people got Estwing was because it was a signal. “I’ve done this before.” “This isn’t my first project.” “I’m not a noob.” It is really amazing how many messages those hammers were sending and yes I do have an Estwing hammer. Why do you ask. 😉

I’m signalling “Roll Tide Roll” at the moment.

We all signal. There is a reason that you can often tell what a person’s hobbies are just from their looks. Signalling. There is a reason that you can often tell what a person does for a living just by a quick glance. Signalling. Look at a kid and make a quick guess concerning whether he/she goes to public school, private school, alternative school, or is home schooled. Signalling is alive and well there too. Heck, I know people whose signalling is all about what they don’t use or have. The lack of something can be just as much about signalling. Not having something can also tell others you are a part of the in crowd of a certain group. My personal favorite signalling group is the Apple fanboy pastor group. Don’t worry fanboy pastors we know you are cool and can really relate to us because you have Apple products all around. That too is signalling. It is saying “Hey, I belong to this style of pastor.” Anyhow, I don’t have a problem with most signalling. I am actually signalling right now as I type this post. What I have a problem with is our signalling conflicting and control us.

My problem with signalling arises when people don’t consider what they are actually signalling. Actually to be most accurate my problem is when I don’t consider what i am actually signalling. For example, my relationship with Jesus Christ is the overriding priority of my life. I hope and believe that Jesus changes and affects everything I do. What if my signalling is is sending the opposite message. I remember signing the song “Rescue” at a conference when I was truck by the signals coming from the group signing the song. One lyric of the song states “This world has nothing for me,” a great lyric, but it seemed a little odd when I realized that the guy singing the lyric was playing what I was fairly sure was a $6,000 guitar. I send out signals all the time. Do they match with who I really want to be? With whom I have been called, and I am becoming, by Christ? Or is what I am actually signalling most important to me?

I hope that I am always questioning why I do, use, or wear something and I am considering what it signals. I hope you are doing this too.

SIDE NOTE – I only have a cursory knowledge of signalling theory and I would love to read more. If you know of a good book on the subject please let me know.

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