Sociology and Signaling
By Bryan Caplan
Back in 1995, I attended an IHS seminar for graduate students. We heard some lectures, practiced our public speaking, and did mock interviews. The last activity was pretty traumatic. It’s hard for a second-year grad student to role-play someone who’s wrapping up his dissertation.
Part of the process was writing up a mock c.v. – which led to a moment I still remember. One of the students wrote his GRE scores on his c.v. During the denouement, the mock interviewers raked him over the coals:
You don’t put your GRE scores on your c.v. It’s makes you look like a grad student! It doesn’t matter how high your scores are. Schools want to hire creative assistant professors – not stellar grad students.
Good advice, no doubt. But why is it good advice? As usual, the signaling model sheds a lot of light. If the average candidate who puts his GRE scores on his c.v. is professionally clueless even given impressive scores, it’s a bad idea to include them. So only professionally clueless candidates do so, reinforcing the equilibrium.
Of course, we can easily imagine a world where revealing your GRE scores is the height of probity, and failing to do so is professionally clueless. In fact, we don’t have to just imagine this possibility. It’s how grad school admission actually works.
So there are multiple equilibria. But what determines which equilibrium actually occurs? In all honesty, any plausible answer is going to have to appeal to customs, interpretations, and other concepts that economists usually associate with sociology. If you’re a narrow-minded economist, of course, this is just another excuse to sweep signaling under the rug. But if you’re a serious social scientist, you’ll take a deep breath instead. Do you really want to search for your keys under the lamppost because it’s brighter there? Or do you want to wander into the darkness of sociology and discover what’s out there?