The Art of Countersignaling


Not long after I wrote about humblebragging, a reader asked me if humblebragging was an example of countersignaling. My short answer is ‘no’ but it deserves a more nuanced explanation.

Signaling is a biological concept in which information is implicitly conveyed to others. Red mushrooms signal to would-be predators that they are poisonous. Peacocks bare their flamboyantly colored feathers to attract other peacocks (at the risk of notifying a predator they are nearby). For decades, businesspeople wore extraordinarily large wristwatches to signal success without having to say it.

Not all signaling is honest signaling. If the color red becomes associated with poison, other species are incented to evolve red hues to protect themselves – even if they aren’t poisonous. The harmless milk snake looks almost identical to the highly venomous coral snake. That’s dishonest signaling. Similarly wearing a fake Rolex is probably dishonest signaling.

Countersignaling, on the other hand, is signaling something by intentionally not signaling it. For example, a large-company CEO may countersignal by wearing jeans to the office and lunching in the employee cafeteria. They don’t need to wear a suit or expensive watch to signal their status.

The research paper Too Cool For School provides several other useful examples:

The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays. Minor officials prove their status with petty displays of authority, while the truly powerful show their strength through gestures of magnanimity. People of average education show off the studied regularity of their script, but the well–educated often scribble illegibly. Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. […] People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response.

Countersignaling, as the examples show, isn’t dishonest signaling. The wealthy person may avoid displaying their wealth to dissuade others from asking them for money. Those who genuinely countersignaling don’t feel the need to signal as they believe the trait is obvious to others. The large company CEO shouldn’t need to signal power.

So why isn’t humblebragging an example of countersignaling?

Countersignaling is the act of doing nothing to signal a trait while humblebragging is the act of doing something to signal the opposite of a trait. Kim Kardashian didn’t need to tell us her emoji was popular by claiming it broke the App Store. (It didn’t.) In essence, humblebragging is actually dishonest signaling.

You should spend less time signaling and more time developing your best self. Avoid humblebragging and let others talk about your good traits and accomplishments. Master the art of countersignaling.

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One Response to The Art of Countersignaling

  1. louisprofphillips April 11, 2022 at 4:55 am #


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