The Handicap Principle: Why Accepting a Disadvantage is a Show of Strength

The Handicap Principle


The handicap principle is the idea that in order to guarantee honesty in communication, the signals that you make must be costly in some way. Therefore, if you want to showcase your strength, you must be willing to pay a price, and the greater the price, the more reliable your show of strength will be.

For example, think of a peacock’s tail. Aside from looking pretty, it serves little to no functional purpose. At the same time, it takes a considerable amount of resources to grow and carry around, and makes it harder for the peacock to escape predators. Because of this, the bigger the tail, the more impressive it is, since it signals to other peacocks that the individual walking around with it is fit enough to find food and evade predators, despite his “handicap”.

This article will explain to you the theory behind the handicap principle, give you some examples for it in life, and show you how understanding it can benefit you.


Theory of the handicap principle

The basic idea behind the handicap principle is that reliable signals must incur a cost to the signaler, and the heavier the cost, the more reliable the signal is.

For example, lets go back to the peacock’s tail. A large tail serves as a reliable signal, because the cost of carrying it is high, in terms of the resources the peacock must consume, and in terms of the difficulty of avoiding predators. The female peacocks therefore trust it as a signal, because a male that is not fit enough to carry his big tail around likely wouldn’t survive long.

Humans are no different, and showcase their strength by accepting disadvantages, often in terms of buying expensive products. For example, wearing a luxury watch is a signal that the person wearing it is wealthy, since they can afford to spend a large amount of money on something that serves mostly as a status symbol.

Note: If you want more examples of the handicap principle in nature and in life, as well as a more in-depth discussion of the theory behind it, check out the original book on the topic.


Signal inflation

The value of a signal can degrade over time, because once a signal becomes affordable to everyone, its value shrinks, in a process of inflation.

For example, in a park where food is plentiful and there are no natural predators, a peacock’s extravagant tail might not serve as a good indicator of fitness, since even weak males could afford to carry it around.

The same is true with cars. Once, simply owning a car was a status symbol by itself. Eventually however, cars became ubiquitous, and owning a luxury car became the new status symbol.

Now, thanks to leasing and loans, even this signal degraded, since people can drive around in relatively expensive cars without being wealthy enough to own them in a responsible manner. The problem is that the cost of ‘cheating’ is not high enough, since people can spend a long time in debt if they want to.

A peacock’s tail, on the other hand, is a more reliable signal, since the cost of cheating by wearing a tail that is too big, is a significantly-increased likelihood of dying, within a short period of time.


Altruism and prestige

The handicap principle can explain a lot of altruistic behavior, since altruism, or the willingness to care for others, serves as a signal of personal ability, which increases the prestige of the signaler in the eyes of others.

For example, when a male bird gives some of his food to weak members of his flock, he is demonstrating his ability to get food, which increases his prestige in the eyes of other members of the flock.

This can be so beneficial to his social standing and to his ability to find a mate, that sometimes competitive altruism develops. When this happens, different members of the group will fight to show others how altruistic they are, and how much they can help others, all to improve their standing within the group hierarchy.


The value of understanding the handicap principle

You can use the handicap principle to make your signals and communication appear more honest. Understand that the greater the cost you incur when signalling others, the more reliable your communication will appear. Cost can be anything of value, including your willingness to spend time, money, or effort.

You can also use the handicap principle in order to interpret other people’s signals. If you’re not sure how honest someone is, ask yourself what cost they are incurring by signalling whatever they are signalling, and what price they will have to pay if they are being dishonest.

Key points to remember:

  • A high cost does not ensure honesty, but it does contribute to the signal’s reliability.
  • Cost is relative to the situation and to the signaler’s ability. A $50 donation from a poor college student can be a much stronger signal than a $1000 donation from a large corporation.
  • The cost must be relevant to the signal, and of interest to whomever you are signalling to. If someone wants to see that you care about them through your willingness to spend time and effort, spending all the money in the world might not help.


Summary and conclusions

  • The handicap principle denotes that in order to guarantee honesty in communication, the signals that you make must be costly in some way.
  • Therefore, if you want to display your strength, you must be willing to pay a price (often in the form of accepting a handicap), and the greater the price, the more reliable your show of strength will be.
  • For example, a peacock’s tail serves no functional purpose, and requires a lot of resources to carry around, while also making it harder to escape from predators. Because of this, it serves as a good signal of fitness, since weak males who carry a big tail likely won’t survive for long.
  • A common way for people to display their their strength is by buying expensive things, which signals others that they are strong from a financial perspective.
  • When communicating with others, always keep in mind that the greater the cost of the signal, the more reliable it is. This is important both when you try to get others to trust your signals, as well as when you consider the honesty of other people’s communication.


If you want to learn more about the handicap principle, beyond the basic information outlined in this article, take a look at the original book on the topic “The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle“.