I'm finishing an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, on recruiting upper level administrators at universities. (It should be out August 18, and I'll post it).
One of the editors had questions about a section where I touted "costly signals" as being a useful way to commit. The context was trying to get folks to come to campus for a final visit. I proposed that the Provost, not the headhuntrix employed by the Provost, make the call. Because "costly signals make the world go round."
And....I got the question: What in the world are "costly signals"?
Is it that obscure a concept?
Male peacock tails: wastes energy, makes the birds vulnerable to predators. But, chicks dig it. Because only a healthy male peacock can maintain that huge tail and not get caught by a fox.
Psychologists use "costly signal" theory to explain human social customs. Say a couple has been dating for a while, have not been intimate. Valentine's day rolls around.
If the guy buys the woman nothing, she is upset. "He doesn't love me." They don't go upstairs and get busy.
If the guy buys her chocolates, a card, and flowers, "He DOES love me!" Getting busy is a real possibility, either upstairs or they may end up staying downstairs and using the couch.
Here's the point, though: Suppose the guy had given the woman MONEY, cash equal in
value to the chocolates and flowers. That would be a crude insult, treating her like a prostitute.
She would throw the cash in his face, and tells him to get out, and take his stupid "764-Hero" CDs with him. (She hates emo, but didn't want to tell him).
You have to WASTE the money for it to have value as a signal. Card ...chocolates....flowers.
All a pure waste, in terms of practical value. But NOT irrational, because they are costly signals of commitment.
"Costly signal" theory is very common in zoology and biology/evolutionary theory.
Grazing on the savannah, a gazelle spots a leopard moving through the tall grass fifty meters away.
What does the gazelle do? It jumps STRAIGHT UP, two meters high!
That wasteful release of energy shows the big cat, "I'm not easy to catch!" and the cat looks somewhere else for prety. (Yes, gazelles really do this, as you likely know).
You see this in birds a LOT: Mother bird comes back with a juicy worm. ALL the babies in the nest go nuts, wasting energy. Mama gives worm to most vigorous squawker. Baby bird is wasting energy, but signalling fitness, gets the worm. Weak baby starves, but might not have survived anyway.
The Great Wall of China was a costly signal. Barbarians riding along on horseback,
suddenly see a wall stretching out of sight in both directions. Wow! A kingdom that wealthy must be able to maintain a huge army. Lets go somewhere else.
The basic result is that only signals that cost resources, that WASTE resources convey information.
Signals that don't waste money are called "cheap talk," like "No, honey, I'll respect you in the morning. Seriously, I will."
Is this really not a widely known concept?