Signals shaping minds and Worlds
Peacocks signal their genetic fitness by displaying a costly plumage of extravagant feathers. Peahens reward the winners with sex. What peacocks are doing is called costly-signaling. They’re yelling, “Look I have to bear the weight of so many feathers, and yet I manage to escape all the predators that I also attract with these feathers, see how fit I am!” Signaling and counter-signaling is one of the most frequent communication method across animal kingdom. And it’s no different with us. Anything we do abounds with signals.
We are social mammals. If we look at any other social mammals, say Chimps or Hyenas, one thing is common among them all. “Social hierarchy”. Males and females with different ranks and status in the group. And every member knows where he stands. It is not highly debatable that among human groups also there exists members with different ranks. We can see it most obviously in politics, or in any office, or a military troop. Social hierarchies however are also apparent in high-schools. Teenagers call it “cool”. And we adults have a social currency of “respect”, which the highest ranking members receive aplenty.
This social status is highly flexible, and in human societies you can earn higher status, and there are many, many ways to do it, depending on the social circle and other contexts. And you can also lose your social status. So there are status gaining moves and status losing moves. Social status meant life and reproduction to our ancestors. Evolution has deeply wired us to try to not lose, maintain, and better still gain social status. If we look at society through this lens, many otherwise confusing things become clearer.
In everything we do we try to impress our peers, and signal our “high status”. High status again is context dependent, in a gym it can be muscles, in a classroom it can be clothes, a car in an office. What we buy, where buy it from, what we eat, where we get it, where we send our children to school, where we live, everything can be a move where we showoff our status. Since we live in a complicated society sometimes desperately signaling “high status” can be considered a low status move, for instance, “Virtue signaling”, and all other “holier-than-thou” moves.
To further clarify, let’s look at whats called “education paradox”. The richer you are the harder it gets to educate your kids. Because it’s not socially acceptable to send your kids to cheap schools when you can “afford” “better” ones. And costly schools are considered better. Is it because costly school are better for the kid’s future? Sure, parents do believe it, they have to. But it’s just an animal thing where an ape is unconsciously yelling, “look i can afford to send my kids to these high-status schools, you can infer my place in the social hierarchy from it”.
But the status signaling rabbit hole runs much deeper than this. There is a certain way rich, and educated members of a society are supposed to talk, and behave. We scold our kids for using the f-words and for not behaving “properly”. In fact a certain “reasoning” faculty is also expected in members of human society who are above the lowest ranks. We all try to sound scientific and reasonable. Because “Science” is a high status object our ape brain wants to attach itself to. And the irony is that in our quest to sound, and talk in a scientific manner, we do not bother to wonder, whether it is in accordance with science to “speak scientifically”. Science is not about sounding scientific at all. Science is about guessing, imagining, and sometimes reasoning theories that explain reality, and science is mostly about falsifying such theories. Reason is but one tool of scientists, but the general public falsely believe it to be the soul. This misalignment between what is actually scientific and what people believe is scientific is a misfortune for our society. Modernity believes whatever is published in science magazines is scientific. Modernity believes whatever sounds “logical”, “reasonable”, and “convincing” is scientific.
But the rabbit hole runs deeper. What is consider a high status signal not only influences how we act and how we speak but also how we think. Our actions shape our identities, which shape out thoughts. How we talk with others, is how we talk with ourselves. Generations can grow up and die, again and again, doing, speaking, thinking only in an “acceptable”, “scientific” (high status) manner. This must be the reason why socially secluded people are more successful in coming up with radical ideas. People who’re not embarrassed by making low-status moves, or those who don’t care about status at all, because they’re wired differently, are the real gems of any society.
We humans are scared shitless about embarrassing ourselves in public. That’s why we are so afraid to ask stupid questions. Because chances are we’ll be laughed at and mocked much more often than we’ll be thought as geniuses. But for a society to move forward, it has to question things. And questioning things is not enough, not accepting the answer everybody believes in is another trick. But we’re tribe animals that associate themselves to different groups by sharing beliefs. Not sharing beliefs with the majority is a really hard thing to do.