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 to 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.

In this article, you will learn more about the handicap principle and about the theory behind it, and see how understanding it can benefit you in practice.


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, let’s 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, generally won’t be able to survive for long.

Humans are no different, and showcase their strength through their willingness to pay a price in some way. Often, this price is monetary, as people buy expensive products in order to demonstrate their financial strength. For example, a person might buy a luxury watch as a signal that they are wealthy, since buying the watch shows that they can afford to spend a large amount of money on something that serves mostly as a status symbol.

However, the price that a person pays doesn’t always have to do with money. In sports, for example, there is the concept of a golf handicap, which refers to the number of golf strokes that a player is limited to during a game. Under this context, the better the player is, the greater the handicap that they play with.

Since a player’s handicap is determined based on their past performance in golf matches, it serves as a direct indicator of their golfing ability. If a weak player claims to be better than they are in reality, they will have to prove it by playing with a significant handicap. Because they’re not actually good enough to play at that level, they will simply end up losing most of their matches, until they accept a handicap that matches their true abilities.


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 a tail like that 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. This makes such a signal less reliable, and means that people have to either buy more expensive cars, or turn to other status symbols in order to demonstrate their wealth.


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 easily get food, which increases his prestige in the eyes of other members of the flock.

This can be so beneficial to one’s social standing, that sometimes competitive altruism develops. When this happens, different members of the group will fight for the opportunity to show others how altruistic they are, and how much they can help others, in order 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 signaling 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 unsure about how honest someone is, ask yourself what cost they are incurring by signaling whatever they are signaling, 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 $100 donation from a poor college student can be a much stronger signal than a $1,000 donation from a large corporation.
  • The cost must be relevant to the signal, and of interest to whomever you are signaling to. For example, 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, 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 difficult for the peacock to escape predators. Because of this, it serves as a good signal of fitness, since weak males who grow a big tail likely won’t survive for long.
  • A common way for people to display their strength is by buying expensive things, which signal 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“.