Virtue signaling is the act of speaking or behaving in a way that’s meant to demonstrate one’s good moral values. For example, if a person widely proclaims on social media that they strongly support a certain cause, just because they want to show others how caring they are, that person is virtue signaling.
Virtue signaling is a prevalent phenomenon with sometimes serious implications, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about virtue signaling, and see how you can account for this sort of behavior.
Examples of virtue signaling
The following are some common examples of virtue signaling:
- A person sharing a status on social media in support of an environmental cause, because they want to show others that they’re a good person.
- A person wearing a shirt showing that they donated money to some cause, because they want others to think that they’re charitable.
- A company saying that they’ll change an issue in their terms of service following a public controversy, because they want to improve their public image.
Furthermore, many specific, real-world events serve as examples of how virtue signaling can play a role on a large scale.
A notable example of this is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which participants were expected to dump a bucket of freezing cold water on their head and/or donate money to charities dealing with ALS (a neurodegenerative disease). The virtue signaling in this case is said to have occurred because many of the people who participated in the challenge did so without making a donation, which suggests that they cared more about participating in the event and about the attention associated with it than they did about supporting the related cause.
Understanding virtue signaling
What is signaling
When it comes to signaling theory as it’s used in fields such as psychology, economics, and biology, signaling is the act of one party communicating information to another.
The parties in question can involve any combination of individuals or groups. For example, signaling might involve one individual signaling to another individual, or it can involve a company signaling to a group of individuals.
Note that the greater the cost associated with a signal, and the greater the potential penalty for being caught presenting a disingenuous signal, the more credible the signal appears to others, a concept associated with the handicap principle. This is demonstrated, for example, in the idiom “talk is cheap”, which suggests that, in general, simple statements that carry no meaningful cost are unreliable signals.
What differentiates virtue signaling from other types of signaling
The defining trait of virtue signaling, as a form of signaling, is that its main goal is to demonstrate one’s good moral values (i.e. to signal virtue).
Furthermore, in general, and particularly in non-academic contexts, the term ‘virtue signaling’ has a negative connotation, as it’s primarily used as a pejorative to refer to disingenuous behavior, that doesn’t reflect people’s true thoughts and beliefs, and that often doesn’t lead to a meaningful positive outcome.
However, it’s possible for virtue signaling to be based on genuine feelings and beliefs, even if the main motivation for the behavior in question is to signal virtue to others. In addition, it’s possible for behavior motivated by the desire to signal virtue to lead to meaningful positive outcomes, regardless of whether it’s disingenuous or not. For example, someone who genuinely cares about a certain cause might donate a substantial sum of money to a related charity, with the primary goal of making sure that others will know that they care about that cause.
There are two types of situations where virtue signaling is likely to lead to meaningful positive outcomes:
- The individual or group in question genuinely believes in what they’re saying or doing, and honestly wants to make a difference, even if their main motivation is to signal their virtue to others.
- The individual or group in question doesn’t believe in what they’re saying or doing, but knows that they can increase the perceived reliability of their virtue signaling by creating a signal that is costly in some way.
Accordingly, though disingenuousness and lack of meaningful impact are generally associated with virtue signaling, this behavior is generally defined by being primarily motivated by the desire to signal one’s good moral values, regardless of whether it leads to a meaningful outcome or not.
Note: the term ‘virtue signaling’ is sometimes also used to refer to people’s attempt to signal something positive about themself, that doesn’t strictly have to do with moral values. For example, managers can be said to be virtue signaling when they act in a risk-averse manner in an attempt to signal their trustworthiness to investors.
Who engages in virtue signaling
Any type of entity can engage in virtue signaling. For example, individuals can engage in virtue signaling, as can groups, companies, or governments.
This type of behavior is particularly common in certain domains, such as politics, where public opinion is especially important. Furthermore, virtue signaling is common on certain platforms, such as social media, where it’s easy to make virtue-signaling statements, and where people are generally expected to share information about themself with others.
Note that although virtue signaling is generally conspicuous and public, it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, someone might engage in virtue signaling in private, by saying things that are meant to convince themself of their own good character, or they might engage in subtle virtue signaling in front of just one other person.
Why people engage in virtue signaling
People engage in virtue signaling because they want to demonstrate their good moral values, usually to others but sometimes also to themself. Accordingly, behaviors that are associated with virtue signaling, such as conspicuous compassion and conspicuous donation behavior, can be either other-oriented, self-oriented, or both:
- Other-oriented virtue signaling is driven by extrinsic reasons, and specifically by the desire to improve the way that other people view the person who is virtue signaling. For example, a person engaging in other-oriented virtue signaling could be driven by the desire to make other people think that they’re a good person.
- Self-oriented virtue signaling is driven by intrinsic reasons, and specifically by the desire to improve the way that the person who is virtue signaling feels about themself. For example, a person engaging in self-oriented virtue signaling could be driven by the desire to prove to themself that they’re a good person.
These different types of virtue signaling are associated with different patterns of behavior. For example, one study found that being prone to self-oriented virtue signaling is associated with a greater intent to donate money than being prone to other-oriented virtue signaling.
A notable motivation for other-oriented virtue signaling are the potential reputational benefits associated with it, and with the general tendency to engage in prosocial behavior, which is behavior that benefits other individuals or society as a whole. Accordingly, when people engage in virtue signaling they often also engage in competitive altruism, where they compete with others to show how much they care about helping those who need it.
However, people can engage in other-oriented virtue-signaling even when no one is observing their behavior. For example, people might justify moralistic punishments against someone, even when no one else will know about it, because they’re used to their actions affecting their reputation.
Finally, note that when it comes to virtue signaling, there is often a value-action gap between people’s values and the actions that they undertake in practice, in situations where people truly intend to make a difference, but end up not doing anything that could lead to meaningful impact, despite their desire to do so.
Note: though this section discusses why individuals engage in virtue signaling, much of this holds true for groups who engage in virtue signaling, such as companies.
Large-scale virtue signaling
Specific acts of virtue signaling can sometimes be repeated on a large scale by multiple individuals. This happens, for example, when numerous people engage in virtue signaling by expressing support for a certain trending cause on social media, without taking any meaningful action.
A notable social phenomenon that can lead to this is the bandwagon effect, which represents people’s tendency to think or act a certain way simply because others are doing the same. This phenomenon is driven by several psychological motivators, including the desire to conform with others and engage in socially desirable behavior, together with the assumption that if others are doing something, then you will likely benefit from it too.
In addition, another notable phenomenon that can lead to large-scale virtue signaling is the availability cascade, which is a self-reinforcing process through which certain topics gain prominence in public discourse. This can occur, for example, when a relatively obscure topic gains a lot of attention by going viral on social media.
Criticism of the term ‘virtue signaling’
The term ‘virtue signaling’ has been criticized by various individuals. Most of the criticism has to do with the way the term is used in practice, rather than with the underlying concept of virtue signaling itself.
Specifically, the fact that people sometimes engage in virtue signaling is generally not controversial. Rather, the issue is that the term ‘virtue signaling’ is often misused, and applied in situations where it’s not relevant. For example, people sometimes accuse anyone who engages in charitable behavior of virtue signaling, even in cases where the main drive behind the charitable behavior isn’t the desire to demonstrate one’s virtue, but rather to effect positive change in the world.
Furthermore, virtue signaling is often used fallaciously as part of ad hominem attacks, in cases where people accuse others of virtue signaling as a way to dismiss them, without properly explaining the issues associated with their behavior or addressing the point that they’re trying to make. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that accusing someone of virtue signaling generally involves accusing them of being disingenuous in their statements or actions, which is detrimental to the ability to conduct proper discourse.
Accordingly, the term ‘virtue signaling’ has been accused of being “devious political propaganda” and a way to “stigmatise empathy”.
Moreover, criticisms of the term have suggested that calling out someone for virtue signaling sometimes serves as a form of hypocritical virtue signaling in itself, where people call others out on supposed virtue signaling, in an attempt to paint themself in a positive light.
Overall, criticisms of virtue signaling are well-summarized in the following quote:
“What started off as a clever way to win arguments has become a lazy put down. It’s too often used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to rebutting their arguments. In fact, it’s becoming indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out: smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority.
I’m not saying we should eradicate ‘virtue-signalling’. But maybe it’s time to get vaccinated.”
— From “‘Virtue-signalling’ – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date”, by David Shariatmadari, in The Guardian (2016)
Accounting for virtue signaling
How to determine if someone is virtue signaling
You can tell that someone is virtue signaling in the general sense of the term if they’re engaging in a behavior that’s primarily meant to demonstrate their good moral values. Furthermore, you can tell if someone is virtue signaling in the narrower, more negative sense of the term, if they fit the following characteristics:
- The main goal of their statements or actions is to signal their good moral values, especially to others.
- They’re being disingenuous in their actions, and not acting in accordance with their actual values.
- Their actions will have little to no meaningful impact on the state of things.
- They’re using their statements or behavior as justification to feel morally superior to others.
The more of these characteristics fit the entity in question, and the better they do, the more likely it is that they’re engaging in virtue signaling.
How to respond to virtue signaling
Before criticizing someone for virtue signaling, you should first do the following:
- Make sure that they’re truly virtue signaling, by looking at the guidelines in the previous section.
- Make sure that there is a valid reason to call them out on their virtue signaling; simply wanting to feel morally superior yourself is generally not a valid reason, and will often lead you to engage in virtue signaling of your own.
When you respond to the use of virtue signaling, you should clearly outline the issues associated with this sort of behavior. For example, if someone claims that they strongly support a social cause, but they haven’t done anything to support the cause beyond making that statement, you can point this out and explain why it’s problematic.
In addition, you should generally avoid using the concept of virtue signaling as a shallow way to dismiss others without consideration; when in doubt, avoid using the term ‘virtue signaling’ entirely, and focus only on explaining the issues with the person’s behavior instead.
Finally, when responding to someone who is virtue signaling, there are a few important caveats that you should keep in mind:
- Just because someone is doing something that demonstrates their good moral values doesn’t mean that they’re virtue signaling.
- Just because someone is making a statement or behaving in a way that is commonly associated with virtue signaling doesn’t mean that they themself are virtue signaling.
- Just because someone is acting in a way that involves virtue signaling doesn’t mean that they aren’t making a positive impact on the world.
- Just because what someone is saying can be seen as virtue signaling doesn’t mean that what they’re saying is wrong.
How to avoid virtue signaling
In some cases, you may want to avoid virtue signaling yourself, as a result of the issues associated with this type of behavior.
The first step to doing this is to consider your statements and actions, using the criteria outlined above, to determine whether what you’re doing constitutes virtue signaling. In essence, the main questions you should ask yourself are:
- Am I saying or doing this primarily to display my good moral values to others?
- Are my statements or actions disingenuous in some way, such as in that I haven’t actually made a meaningful positive impact with regard to what’s being discussed?
When doing this, you may find it beneficial to use debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process, which will help you assess yourself more accurately.
If you do determine that you’re engaging in virtue signaling, or are about to do so, then you should modify your behavior accordingly, to make sure that it truly aligns with what you hope to achieve.
When doing this, it can help to consider why you engage in such behavior in the first place, and to learn about the value-action gap, which often leads people to engage in virtue signaling in cases where they truly do want to make a positive difference, but fail to do so.
Vice signaling is the act of speaking or acting in a way that’s meant to demonstrate one’s supposedly negative moral values. For example, if a person widely proclaims how much they don’t care about a certain societal issue, that person can generally be said to be vice signaling.
Vice signaling is similar to virtue signaling, since both involve speech or actions meant to demonstrate one’s moral values. The difference between virtue signaling and vice signaling is that virtue signaling is meant to illustrate moral values that are generally viewed as positive, while vice signaling is meant to illustrate moral values that are generally viewed as negative.
However, in practice, people who engage in vice signaling often believe that the moral values that they’re signaling are positive in some way, even if those views would generally be characterized as negative by most of society. For example, a person who engages in vice signaling by saying that they don’t care about a certain issue might believe that saying this reflects positively on them in some way, such as by showing that they don’t conform with conventional opinions.
As such, although virtue signaling and vice signaling are technically separate phenomena, they are often driven by similar motivations and take on a similar form, so there is little practical difference between them.
Slacktivism is the practice of supporting a cause in a way that requires little effort or commitment, and which consequently has little impact. For example, sharing a post about a social issue is a form of slacktivism, if that’s the only thing that the person does in support of that cause.
Slacktivism is often a form of virtue signaling, in cases where its main goal is to signal one’s good moral values. It is particularly associated with social media and online petitions, where this type of behavior is common.
A related term in this regard is clicktivism, which refers to slacktivism specifically in the online context. Another related term is hashtag activism, which refers to the use of activism to direct conversations on social media, though ‘hashtag activism’ has less negative connotations that the term ‘slacktivism’, which is almost always used in a negative way.
Note that a significant issue with slacktivism is that the largely meaningless actions that it involves can sometimes come at the expense of more meaningful actions that people might have taken otherwise. This is based on the concept of moral self-licensing, which occurs when acting virtuously in one instance causes people to feel that it’s acceptable to engage in immoral behavior in other instances. This is also a potential issue with regular charitable behavior, but in the case of slacktivism, it’s magnified by the fact that this behavior isn’t counterbalanced by meaningful positive behavior, as well as by the fact that slacktivism is much easier to engage in.
The terms armchair revolutionary and armchair activist are pejoratives that are used to refer to people who claim to support a certain cause, without taking any action to further it.
A related term is armchair warrior, which refers to those who engage in armchair activism in the specific context of advocating for support of the military or of war.
Origin of the term ‘virtue signaling’
The term ‘virtue signaling’ was popularized in an article in The Spectator published on April 18, 2015, by journalist James Bartholomew. In this article, titled “The awful rise of ‘virtue signalling’“, the author presents virtue signaling as a prevalent phenomenon where people attempt to indicate that they are “kind, decent and virtuous”.
In a follow-up article on the topic, published on October 10, 2015, and titled “I invented ‘virtue signalling’. Now it’s taking over the world”, Bartholomew chronicles the consequent use of the term by other journalists, including, most notably, Libby Purves, who others have credited with coining the term.
However, though Bartholomew’s 2015 article did lead to the popularization of the phrase, it appears to have been used in a number of cases at earlier dates. Notably, a 2014 comment on a 2014 news article, contains the following statement:
“Let’s be clear about what this faux outrage is.
It’s Moral Preening, Virtue Signalling, Competitive Pearl-Clutching, Flashing Tribal Signs — call it what you will — it’s a Superior Dance beyond the Church Lady’s wildest imagination.”
— From a comment by user “dicentra”, on the article “Caught Lying by George Will, the Left Lies About George Will!”, by Andrew Klavan, published in PJ Media, June 22, 2014.
Another comment on a different 2014 article also uses the term, though possibly not in the same sense:
“In practice I would recommend being tolerant of most things, getting cut off in traffic, etc., at least as an individual-level strategy for hedons. This leads to collective action problems which virtue-signaling helps to solve.”
— A comment by user “social justice warlock”, on the article “I can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup”, by Scott Alexander, published in Slate Star Codex, September 30, 2014 (comment published on October 1, 2014)
Furthermore, the earliest appearance of the term ‘virtue signaling’ in writing appears to be in an academic paper which was published on April 2014, though here it is also used in a somewhat different sense:
“Robert Bellah and others have argued that political elites use religion to verify submission to a higher law, as a kind of virtue signalling device (see Bellah 1967). Evidence for strong submission to charismatic authority comes from brain imaging machines. Schjoedt and colleagues have demonstrated that audiences tend to cede control to traditional authorities merely because an authority holds an office, irrespective of any special virtue signalling (Schjoedt et al. 2011).”
— From “Why do religious cultures evolve slowly? The cultural evolution of cooperative calling and the historical study of religions.” (Bulbulia, et al., 2014)
Note that neither of the papers mentioned in the paper by Bulbulia et al. (i.e. Bellah 1967 and Schjoedt et al. 2011) mention the term ‘virtue signaling’ explicitly.
In addition, the term “signaling virtue” has been used in academic papers at earlier periods of time, in various senses, including the following:
“Signaling Virtue: Charitable Behavior Under Consumer Elective Pricing” (Uploaded to SSRN on 2014)
“Signaling organizational virtue: an examination of virtue rhetoric, country‐level corruption, and performance of foreign IPOs from emerging and developed economies” (Published in ‘Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal’ on 2013)
“Signaling Virtue? A Comparison of Corporate Codes in the Fields of Labor and Environment” (Published in ‘Theoretical Inquiries in Law’ on 2013)
Signaling virtue: voluntary accountability programs among nonprofit organizations (Published in ‘Policy Sciences’ on 2009)
Finally, note that some sources claim that the term ‘virtue signaling’ can be traced back to a 2004 forum post:
“Virtue signaling at its most pedestrian.”
— A comment by user “Al Cowens”, in the post “guy walking behind a kkk parade playing a tuba”, published on the ‘Something Awful’ forum
However, it appears that this attribution stems from a misunderstanding; specifically, it appears that August 11, 2004 is the registration date of the user who made the comment, while the actual date at which the comment was made is July 21, 2015, which is after the publication of the initial Bartholomew article on virtue signaling.
Summary and conclusions
- Virtue signaling is the act of speaking or behaving in a way that’s meant to demonstrate one’s good moral values.
- For example, if a person widely proclaims on social media that they strongly support a certain cause, just because they want to show others how caring they are, that person is virtue signaling.
- Though the defining trait of virtue signaling is that it involves signaling one’s good moral values, this term is generally used to refer to statements or actions that are disingenuous, in that they don’t align with people’s true values or that they lack meaningful positive impact.
- If you choose to point out that someone is virtue signaling, you should first make sure that they’re indeed virtue signaling, and then make sure to point this issue out in a way that fully and properly explains why it’s problematic, potentially while avoiding the term “virtue signaling” itself.
- When calling out virtue signaling, it’s important to avoid misusing the term in a dismissive manner as a cheap personal attack, and to remember that just because someone is doing something that demonstrates their moral values doesn’t mean that they’re virtue signaling, and that just because what someone is saying can be seen as a form of virtue signaling doesn’t mean that what they’re saying is wrong.