What Will the Neighbors Say? How Signaling Ossifies Behavior
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose you suddenly discover a far better way of doing X. Your discovery uses fewer resources, yields higher quality, and even has more positive externalities than Ye Olde Standby. There’s just one catch: your discovery is a discovery. By definition, no one currently does X your way.
In many cases, you can shrug, say “So what?” and proceed. If your discovery is “Eating a mango a day keeps the doctor away,” go for it. But open-mindedness often bites the hand that feeds it. If other people (a) are watching you, (b) will take your new behavior as a sign of non-conformity, and (c) value conformity either instrumentally or intrinsically, then “What will the neighbors say?,” is a serious question. And any serious question is a serious reason not to adopt your discovery despite its merits.
For example, suppose you discover that Star Trek uniforms are cheaper, more comfortable, and safer than conventional clothing. Before you switch to full-time Trekkie wear, you would be wise to ponder other people’s reaction to your fashion statement. If you’re even vaguely connected to mainstream American society, that reaction would probably be very negative. You’d probably lose your job, your friends, and maybe even your spouse. (If any). Why? Because you’re acting weird, and most people loathe the weird… or the correlates of the weird.
Once you take conformity signaling seriously seriously, it’s easy to list other negative inferences the neighbors might draw about you if you deviate from Ye Olde Standby. When you start doing something different, perhaps your neighbors will say that you’re arrogant, reckless, disrespectful, traitorous, impious, or crazy. The list goes on. While it’s conceivable that the neighbors will instead call you brilliant, clever, forward-thinking, or progressive, that’s usually wishful thinking. As any anthropologist will tell you, human beings are conformists through and through. Goths strive to mimic their fellow Goths, hippies their fellow hippies. We are the sheeple.
The lesson: In the real world, signaling naturally tends to ossify behavior – to lock in whatever the status quo happens to be. If you’re an optimist, you can protest, “It’s only a tendency.” But even an optimist should admit that this tendency leads to atypically slow and unreliable progress.
P.S. I am not merely making a thinly-veiled argument against the prospects of online education. My point is general, and I embrace it generally.