They’ve even coined a term, “signal-burying,” to explain why humans opt to play down their interests and good deeds.
Finding myself alone at a fashion week afterparty during my first year of college, I did what anyone who fears being alone at a party does: I stared down into my phone, feigning indifference to my surroundings. While my Irina Lazareanu-inspired bangs obscured my face, I scrolled through Instagram when a very skinny boy, dressed in black with a Leica dangling from his neck, grasped my arm. “Oh my god, you look like one of those French girls in the corner at parties, who just like, doesn’t give a fuck!” he screamed. My posture had signaled, it seems, a very particular message for a specific type of receiver. But moments later, when I smiled at the Leica Boy, asking him a friendly question, my coy French-girl image shattered before his eyes. It was replaced, now, by an overeager and lonely Californian. Leica Boy demurred and drifted back into the crowd.
As it happens, the messages I sent that fateful night to Leica Boy are a new focus of study by behavioral scientists, who have developed an evolutionary game theory model called “signal-burying,” a term for the behaviors behind anonymous donations or downplaying interest in a romantic partner—activities that invert the traditional human habit of signaling desire, goodness or wealth. Researchers were drawn to the question of why humans would want to suppress such signals. After all, when one donates to a charity anonymously, no credit or admiration will follow. The Tinder date you’ve been leading on will eventually feel rebuffed. Carrying around a $5,000 Moynat bag will lead many to assume you bought it at Marshall’s.
Published by the journal Nature Human Behavior, this week, researchers from Harvard and the Institute of Science explain why we engage in signal-burying at the risk of losing the social pay off. To make sense of this behavior, the researchers devised the “signal-burying game.” The basic gist is that a sender could choose to send no signal (at no personal cost), send a clear signal (at a cost), or send a buried signal (at the same cost). A clear signal is guaranteed to be received, whereas a buried signal is not. Once the signal has been sent, the receiver, unaware of the the sender’s type, can then decide whether or not to engage in a partnership with the sender. It is, in many ways, a matter of privilege who can send buried signals, as it indicates the sender can afford that risk, thus indicating a higher social status. According to the research, I sent a clear message to Leica Boy that night, exposing my middling social status.
Ultimately, the act of signal-burying is designed to insulate a person from judgement. Researchers note that the use of calculated indifference has other implications—after all, a buried signal is still a signal. “Burying a signal may indicate a lack of interest in those who might have been impressed by the signal; alternatively, burying may also signal confidence that receivers are liable to find out anyway,” they write. These hidden signals can be recognized by a savvy receiver, revealing additional information about a sender that may increase a receiver’s estimation of their status. Wearing a logo-free bag might communicate confidence and a lack of concern for recognition. For other receivers, it can be a loud signal speaking to one’s refined tastes and purchasing power. In sacrificing general recognition, a more specialized, and perhaps valuable, social credit is gained. Of course, the savviest senders are adept nuanced signals. “High senders tend to be modest…but not too modest,” one of the researchers concludes. “Even if you’re humble, you don’t try to be holier-than-thou.”
Still, there is hope, yet, for those who haven’t mastered the art of the buried signal. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests the relationship between coolness and indifference is far less clear than popular culture would have you think. For a paper titled, “Is Being Emotionally Inexpressive Cool?” researchers asked participants to rate advertisements of models and celebrities on a scale of cool to not cool. Participants consistently rated smiling models as cooler than their blank-faced counterparts. Even King of Cool himself, James Dean, was considered cooler when smiling.
It may be the case that a model’s indifferent stare is the buried signal that speaks to the select clientele of an advertiser, while the smile is the clear signal accessible by a universal audience. Far be it from me to suggest anyone smile, but I won’t be stopping.