An oversimplified argument for why "Virtue Signaling" is a good thing.

2 min read

“These people are just virtue signaling”; in the popular internet discourse this has come to mean “these people are just doing a useless activity to impress their friends”.

But there is a stronger argument that “virtue signaling” is a good thing… People to do good for a social reward is how our society works (Adam Smith Institute’s Bowman makes a similar point).

An oversimplified explanation from Economics/game theory:

  • “Signaling” can only work if the action that sends the signal conveys information about an individual’s type
  • For it to be informative, only those who are virtuous must want to do the action that sends the signal
  • Thus it must be more costly for the baddies to do this action than for the goodies.

Which actions will tend to be less costly/more beneficial for the virtuous than the baddies? Actions that promote the social good, e.g., voting in an election.

If we imagine a continuum of preferences over ‘love of promoting the social good’…

  • the most saintly types will vote even if they didn’t give away “I voted” stickers. For them the good-feeling alone exceeds the cost.
  • The medium-good types (like you and I) will vote only if we get the sticker because ‘the reputation benefit plus the good feeling’ exceeds the cost.
  • The baddies will never vote; they get no good feeling from voting, and the reputation benefit is not worth the cost. This is the ‘separating equilibrium’. Here the “I voted” stickers get more people to do good, as they offer a meaningful reputation benefit.