Friday, October 17, 2008

Signaling, Cheap Talk, and Relationships

How does one signal to the opposite sex that they are a good catch? Think about it. Assume (for simplicity) that there are two types of guys: winners and losers (Let's not define these two terms yet...). Assume also that girls prefer winners to losers. What's the best strategy for a guy?

Winners: Tell girls you are a winner.
Losers: Tell girls you are a winner.

And there is the conundrum: simply stating which category you fall into is not an effective signal. Why? Because it is cheap. If it were expensive for losers to claim winner status, the signal would work. But it isn't.

So what are nice guys to do? For more, check out the comments. And feel free to add to my ideas (as they are clearly incomplete).


Will Luther said...

Signaling is possible in some relationship situations. I think it depends on the utility function of the girl.

If she defines "winner" as someone who is financially independent, educated, well-traveled, and other things of this sort, guys can signal (with fancy cars and clothes, degrees, passport stamps, etc).

Some girls purposefully date jerks, though. But this doesn't have to change things much. Maybe she defines "winner" as genuine bad boys. One can effectively signal with a criminal record.

Signaling becomes more difficult when she defines "winner" as someone possessing certain qualities: caring, compassionate, honest, understanding. This type might be more difficult to signal effectively.

What do you think? And what kind of signals do you see out there?

Angela said...

On Wednesday I was at the Markham Cook County Courthouse for jury duty. Walking out this guy attempts to hit on me. All I could think was "are you serious? You are at a courthouse and certainly not for a good reason." I thought at the time that his signaling was poor, but maybe my being there and unshowered, ampathetic nature was signaling something as well.

Also Robin Hanson was on EconTalk in May and had a great discussion about signaling and talks a bit about relationships about halfway through.

The interesting point is about signals that express short-term and longer-term expectations.

Libby J. said...

Where I'm from (a smallish midwestern college town), the most prevalent signaling I see college boys doing is conforming. Go to any bar downtown, and you'll see all the men dressed the same. Granted, I know that men as a whole tend to place less emphasis on their clothing, and as such have fewer clothing retail options; however, these guys aren't even particularly well dressed. It's like a huge, city-wide "race to the middle."

Why did this trend originate? Is this some kind of equilibrium? Why aren't boys' styles escalating upwards here? A few men dressing better than average ought to put pressure on the rest of them to step it up a notch or two. Ideas?

Will Luther said...

I guess I am surprised as well that they are not competing on this margin. Maybe its not what most girls want. Maybe they don't want to signal incorrectly (bc eventually they plan to dress how they do now and the relationship would fall apart). I am not sure...