Counter-signaling bleg

I am looking for some salient examples of counter-signaling.  The classic case is the rich man who dresses like a bum – he has no one he needs to please.  Casual dress signals the very high level of his status and his absence of a boss.  Of course this equilibrium is not always mimic-proof (e.g., virtually anyone can dress like a bum).  This strategy works for the rich if only they have some other means of causing people to think they are very high-quality.

Top nerd programmers often don’t wear ties.  Truly beautiful women might deliberately dress down.  Can you think of other plausible examples?  Does counter-signaling work best when a person has already built up a mystique?  Thanks in advance for any help you can offer…

Addendum: Here is my previous post on counter-signaling.


I knew a Merrill-Lynch heir who drove a Checker.

The use of titles. Mid level executives are more likely to use their titles, e.g. on business cards, than more senior execs. Two examples -- I once worked at a small partnership. While most partners had the title 'Partner' after their name, the most senior did not, they had only thier name and the company name, just like the more junior, untitled staff. I once saw teh business card of a White House Chief of staff (I think it was Donald Regan) who likewise had only his name on the card.

The British army. The top general wears an old sweater, the ones below him their regulation uniforms complete with scrambled eggs and fruit salad.

MacArthur was famous for never wearing any of his other medals except his stars. He was the most decorated soldier ever.

Bill Gates/Steve Jobs with their dress code...

i know a guy who drives around in ferarri, but almost always with flip flop and shorts and the cheapest Nokia phone. it's not until he get back to his car you realise that the ferarri shirt he's wearing is a real one.

Scientists/engineers who are technically saavy & sophisticated who use small paper diaries/calenders rather than a PDA.

When I used to work in a corporate hq and we would visit, say, a regional office, I would dress down somewhat. Also, if we drove with a private car, we made sure it what was not showy.

I currently work in an organization that has its share of consultants running around in the building. They might want to consider counter signalling, as they stand-out by there dress alone. I realize that they have to abide by a dress code, but they might want to consider a more flexible one, one that allows them to adjust to their client and the project they are on.

The seduction game, in which oftentimes a man needs to signal disinterest to the woman in order to get her to reveal that she might be interested, and in which signaling interest all too often leads to the woman losing interest in the man (the example also works if you replace "man" by "woman" above and vice versa).

The same thing occurs in politics, where often the candidate who seems the most reluctant to acquire power is the one that the people will want to elect most, precisely because he is not in solely because he wants power.

Smart people that use simple words rather than big words that convey the same message.

A few less obvious ones:

For a management consultant or an investment banker, being fit is generally a good signal. Very prominent ones, though, are often not in a very good shape (e.g., Bruce Wasserstein).

Many top mathematicians do not present (or even write down) proofs very formally or carefully. Being excessively formal is often a sign that the contribution isn't that great. I think it is less clear-cut in economics, where many not-so-top people are also very informal simply because they can't write formal proofs, but the effect is probably present as well.

Google founders drive cheap cars (Priuses) and live in apartments.

However, for all these examples (including dress code etc.) I do not see a clear empirical strategy for distinguishing between countersignaling (i.e., Bill Gates would dress up more formally in the absence of signalling effects) and simply having no or very little need for signaling since you are already very good (i.e., Bill Gates would dress up in exactly the same way or even less formally in the absence of signaling effects).

I do suspect, though, that Google founders, being red-blooded young males, would drive much more expensive and fun cars in the absence of signaling. Buying a house might simply be too much hassle for them, but buying a Porsche takes very little time.

An example from the world of mountain bike racing: the bike you ride. As racers progress through the ranks from beginner to sport to expert/pro, the value of the bike you use generally increases. However, very strong and experienced riders often seem then to graduate from a $7000 masterpiece (seriously: to a heavy, fully rigid (no suspension), single speed (1 gear, not 27) bike.

I once came upon a very high class restaurant in the Berkshires that was in an old house. The sign outside was very small, and the parking almost nonexistant. Unfortunately, it is long gone. Not that it wasn't a success, but that keeping a secret like that requires occassional moves.

Another case is the Salt Lick BBQ outside Austin TX. It isn't really easy to find, and the sign, again, is small (on the order of a foot square).

Bad hand-writing.

Most of the posters are male, as are the examples. My guess is that this plays differently with females. My physician/researcher wife reports trouble if she dresses down or doesn't wear her white coat. Subordinates -- particularly females -- often do not respect the authority of a woman who dresses down.

I was at a restaurant lately were a young man was seated with a very attractive young woman he was obviously involved in a heterosexual relationship with. He was wearing a pair of shoes that have traditionally been considered feminine (mules). I would say the whole metrosexual movement is a form of counter signaling.

By the way, "Google founders drive cheap cars (Priuses) and live in apartments."
While the apartments may be counter-signaling, I would argue the Priuses are a very definite form of traditional signaling.

Another example in vehicular terms involves people of modest income who nonethless feel compelled to drive expensive cars they can't really afford. Lease deals that allow for relatively low monthly payments make this form of "signalling" possible. Of course, many of the leases are otherwise financially inadvisable, often requiring substantial cap cost reductions and having unrealistically low mileage allowances, but they get people into cars they'd never be able to purchase. Cadillac Escalades are notorious for being driven by people who should be driving less-costly vehicles.

About hidden bars in LA from the movie Swingers:

Mike: For some reason the cool bars in Hollywood have to be hard to find and have no sign. It's kind a like a speak easy kind a thing. It's kind a cool it's like you're in on some kind a secret, you know. You tell a chick you been some place it's like bragging you know how to find it.

When I think of countersignalling, a brilliant former professor (Dr. Jones) comes to mind. During a seminar, he'd often start a question by scratching his head and saying "I'm sure this is me, because there's a lot of things I just don't get". Then he'd ask a very simple question in very simple language. Part of it was tactical (it's amazing how many speakers fell for it and treated him like he was an idiot).

This approach has become so well known among my peers that several generations of grad students from our program call this approach "pulling a Jones"

Assistant professors often try to aggressively signal by getting in people's faces, using phrases like "you must understand...", and using big words, OTOH, well established senior faculty tend to be more gracious and speak more cleanly, simply, and in a more down to earth style.

Those people in Manhatten get screwed when it rains hard, because then everyone takes cabs so cabs aren't available.

Does counter-signalling have to be deliberate? If so, I'm not convinced all of these are cases of counter-signalling, vs. not caring or even not knowing what the standard signals are. There may be an implicit confidence that other signals ("I am a good programmer") will carry the day but not necessarily any awareness of what's going on.

Or, rather than counter-signalling, there may be a confidence in *superior* forms of signalling, e.g. being able to demonstrate technical competence makes inferior signals such as tie-wearing obsolete.

Which isn't the same thing as being too rich to care about anyone's opinion, which gets back to my skepticism that these are all the same thing.

Using the google founders is a funny example, considering that they just bought a
767 for use as a "party-jet". (Complete with king-size beds.)

In Britain, medical students eventually qualify and then use the title "doctor" as in the US. But if they then go on to become surgeons they revert to "Mr". I'm not sure if this is really counter-signaling or just tradition from a couple of hundred years ago when surgeons were regarded as artisans and didn't pass through being a doctor at all.

"if you announce that you went to Harvard, other people give signs of intimidation that can be quite uncomfortable and awkward"

Luckily us University of Pennsylvnia graduates don't have that problem. People just think it's a state school.

This strategy works for the rich if only they have some other means of causing people to think they are very high-quality.

I find this statement puzzling, for the same reason that I think some of the examples are not signalling.

If you have some other means of establishing that you have an attribute then you don't need to signal. I thought the whole point of a signal was that it is costly, but its cost declines in the attribute being signalled. So offering a warranty on a used car you are selling costs you something, but the better shape the car is in the less it costs.

One idea mentioned that might fit is the idea of programmers dressing badly. That could signal, at the cost of being seen as a slob, that the programmer is not much concerned about money, but instead is deeply interested in computers and software, etc. This extends, maybe, to other cases where someone is trying to signal a personal value system that does not place much emphasis on consumption. Of course it only works in an environment, where consumption is highly valued.

This is more of the general "smart geeks dress down" to the point of it
almost being a mandatory dress code (male geeks anyway). During a session
on econophysics at the AEA a few years ago, physicist Doyne Farmer made fun
of economists for dressing in suits too much and bragged about how he and
all his physicist (and econophysicist) pals dressed down. It was clearly
put forward as part of the argument that the physicists were better at
doing economics than the economists. The economists were clearly like those
clueless overdressed bankers visiting high tech firms.

Regarding Sam Walton (and also the unmentioned Ray Kroc) there may have
been another element. Both of these men were known for sneaking around
in their dumpy clothes and cars to show up unannounced randomly at their
establishments (Kroc built up MacDonald's for any too young to remember)
for on-site inspections. Both had certain demands and standards that were
viewed as key to the success of their firms, and the threat of their random
on-site inspections helped enforce those standards.

Some examples of interest:

Musashi arrived at his most famous duel with a wooden practice katana (and won). Rod Woodson, in his prime, never called for a fair catch on punt or kickoff returns. The message in each case: I'm very, very good -- and quietly berserk.

On the same lines: Academic bloggers. The message: "I got all the time in the world, dude." And more pointedly -- and with all due respect -- Economists who write about the 12-tone / ska fusion revival bands of East Timor, etc.: "I can publish about _anything_."

Bruce Springsteen has played the same low-end Fender guitar for his entire recording career. But is he counter-signaling his guitar skills and his unwillingness to take a Springsteen Signature Edition guitar deal, or is it just the guitar he's used to playing?

Don Marti: Using beat-up, old equipment is very popular amongst musicians (Paul McCartney, Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the aforementioned Willie Nelson, and the list goes on) who could easily afford to have custom-made instruments. This is probably because of their comfort level with the instrument or for sentimental reasons more than any type of counter-signalling. Springsteen probably does so as a traditional signal, to show that he can be mentioned in the same breath as legitimate icons, that is to cover up for his vast back-catalog of musical evidence to the contrary. The same could be said for his early predilection for dressing like the Rolling Stones.

In the automotive/street racing scene, I've noticed that the fastest cars are often left to look like they are still factory, maybe with the only noticable upgrade being the wheels.

I am a fashion industry related geek and I dress like crap. Am I countersignaling? Hell no, I just don't care. Not only do I not care, most of the designers and manufacturers I know don't care either. It's a good thing consumers do care, otherwise we'd be in worse shape than we are. Evidently, not only do the shoemaker's children have no shoes, they don't want them either.

"This strategy works for the rich if only they have some other means of causing people to think they are very high-quality."

Someone above wrote they don't understand the above quote.

If a middle class guy drives an old Ford, people assume he's too poor to afford better so it lowers his class image.

But if someone who is obviously a multi-millionaire drives an old Ford (and many do), it signals that he's so secure in being rich that he doesn't have to show off by having an expensive care. This raises his class image among the old-money people, and he doens't really care what lower class or middle class think becuase they are completely off his social radar.

Most of these examples are just status competitions where the competitors hit a ceiling in the arms race. We are a rich country. It's almost impossible for the upper class to outdress the upper-middle class in a way that's easily visible to function as a useful social signal.

The middle chase the upper middle who chase the rich up the social signal ladder. At some point a ceiling is hit so the rich change tactics. A brief period of confusion reigns before the lower classes realize the rich have jumped ladders. Then the process starts over again. Rinse and repeat.

A ceiling was hit on clothing a long time ago. The rich need to go to ever more exotic travel destinations, since the average American can afford the European highlight tour nowadays. Food snobbery has been a good source of class differentiation in recent decades.

How about teeth? Now that every American can have perfect, gleaming teeth, I want to see some rich guy purposefully mangle his teeth. Or just stop brushing for years. No mental illness allowed. A perfectly healthy adult who eschews the middle class dream of gleaming white teeth to signal he's so high in status he doesn't need good teeth.

The whole "hipster glasses" thing--you know, the ones with the thick black frames that the guy from Weezer made so popular. It started out as a "dress like a nerd to be cool" thing, but ten years on, the original irony behind it has completely evaporated.

Michael, Will, you are right, if you have no umbrella its because you have a driver and a car around the cornner..

"Truly beautiful women might deliberately dress down."

I found that in college I needed to dress down so I could keep male interest at bay. Not that I was particularly beautiful, but guys, being what they are/(were)...

Anyway, as Marilu Henner said on Taxi (paraphrased), "the only thing dressing down does is attract a lower class of guy."

This is the truth, for what it's worth.

Upon entering college (up in Minnesota) one of the first things I learned was that the faculty were NOT to be addressed as "professor" or "doctor."

How about those who append "Ph.D" or the like to their name on the covers of their books? They're not counter-signaling, but for me it works as a signal they don't intend to send -- "I'm insecure in my position" -- and usually with good reason.

I loved the "Too Cool for School" paper, and thought their list of examples in the first two pages was quite salient. My favorite is the good friend who can kid you about attributes that would get a casual acquaintance punched in the nose (e.g., that you're fat, your momma dresses you funny, that you have no luck with women, etc.)

We should be careful, however, to distinguish countersignalling from deliberately "slumming." In countersignalling, there are really two signals: the one sent by the high types to separate them from the medium types, and the implicit one, sent without effort, that separates the high from the low types. The billionaire in first class can wear ratty clothes to distinguish him/her from the business traveler in the suit; anyone can observe, since he/she is in first class, that they're not a bum.

In slumming, the high types deliberately pool with the low types and MASK the secondary signal that distinguishes them from the middle types. This is lots of fun when going to bars (and BBQ restaurants).

I suppose there is a possibility of counter-slumming -- sort of like "putting on airs." Imagine a bunch of poorly-educated uncouth individuals dressing up in Armani suits to go to open houses for $5 million homes. They might succeed at first -- but their implicit signals (manners, etc) will give them away, which they might find very funny. Overcoming this, of course, is the basic plot of _Pygmalion_ and its subsequent adaptation.

I second the notion that _Class_ is an excellent read.

I'm wondering if this whole "signalling" business is well-defined at all. As a few comments have suggested, how does one go about distinguishing counter-signalling from idiosyncratic tastes to, believe it or not, mere ignorance of what the proper signals ought to be.

@ Half Sigma:
Yeah, it's funny when people confuse the University of Chicago with the University of Illinois-somewhere. There are some students who are greatly offended by that confusion (among the general public, or others, I guess) and others who know the golden rule, "the people who matter know the UofC".

Maybe it is because of counter-signalling that the UofC, which has the second-highest tuition rate (after Columbia) of American universities, is in one of the worst areas of Chicago? (not Hyde Park itself, but the surrounding neighborhoods) Or maybe not...

Then again, maybe by asking these questions I'm signalling... or feigning signalling... is there any way to tell?

How all fashion designers only wear black (typically jeans or slacks and a t-shirt and perhaps a jacket). I always found that a little jarring given their career choices.

But if someone who is obviously a multi-millionaire drives an old Ford (and many do), it signals that he's so secure in being rich that he doesn't have to show off by having an expensive care. This raises his class image among the old-money people, and he doens't really care what lower class or middle class think becuase they are completely off his social radar.

Like some of the other examples, this confuses "signalling" with simply presenting an image. Signalling, as I understand it, is an effort to convey that one has a certain attribute in a situation where there is no other convenient way to announce it. If everyone knows you're rich then you don't signal that you're rich by driving a cheap car. You have no need to signal it at all.

Now, you might be signalling that you don't care much about personal consumption. This could be useful in some circumstances. Say someone wanted to earn your respect. They might be influenced by your signal to engage in philanthropic activity or do similar things rather than simply strive for financial success.

"IMHO, those confident in their ability as researchers never use Dr."

Interesting. Are you trying to signal to _yourself_ that you are an elite researcher?

"THE Ohio State University"

Now that's just cruel...

"How all fashion designers only wear black (typically jeans or slacks and a t-shirt and perhaps a jacket). I always found that a little jarring given their career choices."

Simplicity is a fashion. Black and white go anywhere, with anything. It's first order classy.

"Smart people that use simple words rather than big words that convey the same message."

This isn't counter-signaling, this is communicating effectively.

In reference to all 3 of my comments, why do so many seem to believe that keeping things simple is not the end-result of intelligence? It's not counter-signaling. Complexity is oversold. Simplicity is sophistication.

I work in software, on the release team. I wear a tie the last two days of every seventh week, when we release the new version of our software. If anyone looks down on me for it, I haven't noticed, but sometimes coworkers unaware of my habit are surprised by it.

In general, I don't think the coder dress code is counter-signaling, in particular because the less impressive employees don't dress up (except for me, every seventh week). I think it's mostly preference, though there may be some cultural component - a programmer in a suit would stick out. But not counter-signaling.

Paul Halmos said in his "automathography" that he noticed a difference in the way the faculty were addressed at the different universities he worked at during his career: the least reputable schools used the title Dr. since it couldn't be assumed that the instructors had PhDs; the average schools reverted to the standard Prof. title since their credentials were not in question but they wanted to distinguish themselves as faculty; and the elite schools (he used the University of Chicago as an example) simply referred to the faculty as Mr.

Aaron, I disagree with "Using big words or industry jargon is a signal usually needed to fit into groups. You must have status to move on to simple, effective communication." Some people may think they need to do this, but they are usually wrong. My reaction to someone attempting this is WTF? I'm far more impressed with clear communication as it usually correlates with clear thinking. Status is gained with clear thinking and communication, among other things.

I work in software consulting, interacting with technical and non-technical people all day long, with a strong need to communicate effectively. Jargon can be effective with technical people, though not always. With both audiences, big words - though I could bestow my interlocution wtih them (haha) - are usually a hindrance.

Ben P,

There is a further wiggle on this "Dr./Professor" thing. In the South it used to be that
more senior high school teachers would be referred to as "Professor." Hence, it was possible
to be a "Professor" without being a "Doctor." That has held over with more colleges and unis
in the South using "Doctor" on their campuses rather than "Professor," but I think Halmos was
mostly right, although these days I think the "Mr./Ms." has been replaced by simply using
first names.

i think a bunch of the comments miss the obvious: often times, more expensive things are not better. you'd be hard pressed to find a better car than many subarus, much of the best food (e.g., vietnameese, good burgers) need not be (and often isn't) expensive, an old fender amp really does sound better than the most expensive new amp, you can get a better education at some states schools than far more expensive ivies, a bigger house is not necessarily more comfortable to live in than a medium-sized house, etc. so some of this is people just making sensible choices, choosing not to signal even though the have the means to do so. (i know, we can argue about whether the "best" car includes its signalling value, but by definition this discussion shouldn't consider that value, only utility in some narrow sense of the word (as car qua car or somesuch).)

Successful pols do this all the time. George H.W. Bush said he like pork rinds, remember? And George W. claimed, after losing his first run for political office in Texas (during which he touted his Ivy League education), that he'd never get "out-dumbed" again. (I have also heard him use the word "shit". Seriously.)

It's true that in street racing you can get more attention with a car completly stock looking that is very fast. The term for this kind of car is a sleeper. A good example i can remember seeing was an audi stationwagon blowing the doors off a dodge viper.

Many of my students act stupid. I think they learned it from me.

"Top nerd programmers often don't wear ties."

Programmers only wear ties if forced. Anyone who wears one from free choice will get little respect from me and would bomb an interview unless he was brilliant.

When I worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, the top executives took pains to make sure they were more casually dressed than anyone else (down to the holes in the jeans). By contrast, the best dressed with usually either the mail room guys trying to work their way up, or the Admin Assistants (who were usually also georgeous).


Government job.

George W. Bush. A man that used to be well spoken when running governor of Texas and now speaks less eloquently. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and now speaks like a cowboy. Ultimate counter-signal!

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THE perfect example:

Craig Newmark's business card reads Customer Service Representative and CEO.

What an unbelievable smackdown to Mark Zuckerberg and other pretentious ******. Craigslist is a priori, a posteriori, a fortiori a great idea. (unlike FB, only obvious ex post)

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